Mistletoe and murder, p.6
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       Mistletoe and Murder, p.6

           Robin Stevens
 
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  As we came out of the scarf shop, we almost ran into Michael Butler again. He whipped by us on his bicycle, and we both had to duck back into the doorway not to be seen. We did it instinctively – although we were investigating the Mellings, not Michael, we had agreed that it was best if no one at Maudlin had any idea what we were up to.

  After he had cycled away down the street, Daisy nudged me. ‘It’s ten to twelve,’ she said. ‘Time to go to Fitzbillies.’

  ‘Do you want to?’ I asked cautiously. I had been avoiding the question.

  ‘I know you do!’ said Daisy. ‘And anyway, aren’t you hungry after that dreadful breakfast?’

  I was. The thought of those Fitzbillies buns made my mouth water, and my cold fingers tingle inside my gloves.

  We rushed through the Cambridge streets and arrived at Fitzbillies to find it bursting with people – and there were Alexander and George, sitting at one half of a square table. Daisy called out, and Alexander looked up at her voice. I saw a burst of recognition and happiness flash across it. Alexander never can hide his emotions – he really is the most dreadful undercover detective. And suddenly I was not sure that this meeting was a good idea after all.

  Then Daisy and George caught sight of each other, and I was amazed all over again by the connection that had already formed between them. Daisy is very good at people. She understands what makes them tick, just like a mechanic with a car, but I have rarely seen her like someone. In the whole world, she likes me, and her father, and her uncle Felix, and Bertie, and no one else – at least, until George. I was particularly amazed because boys, to her, are usually simply less interesting versions of girls. She has never understood in the slightest how I feel about Alexander – and yet she seemed extraordinarily taken with George Mukherjee.

  2

  Two minutes later we were seated in the bright glow and bustle of Fitzbillies tea rooms, decked out with Christmas baubles and strings of bright paper rings, and the tea maid was taking our orders. It did feel strange, the four of us sitting together without a grown-up. I was suddenly not even quite sure how I ought to sit – did grown-ups sit back, or rest their elbows on the table? What did they do with their hands and feet? I was waiting for the maid to catch us at it, to point her pencil at us and tell us off for pretending to be grown up. But she only wrote down our tea order rather distractedly (hot cocoa, Chelsea buns, four different sorts of sandwiches and lemon cake) and then rushed away.

  I stared around us. Christmas parcels were piled in every corner, pushed under tables among tired shoppers’ feet. Above the steam from the teapots and the waft of the fresh buns there was a sharp scent of pine from the boughs hung up in the corners of the room – it was all wonderfully festive, and I loved it.

  ‘Now,’ said George. ‘Listen to my idea.’ Alexander tugged at his shirt cuffs (somehow they were still too short) and grinned at us both.

  ‘First,’ said Daisy, putting on a haughty front, ‘I would like to say that I am not at all happy that you have stepped in on what ought to be our case. We are the best detective society ever created, after all, and—’

  ‘One of the two best, I think you’ll find,’ said George, not at all ruffled. ‘The Junior Pinkertons have solved plenty of cases, you know that.’

  ‘Humph!’ said Daisy, her mouth narrowing again. ‘All I know are our cases. And they prove that the Junior Pinkertons are decidedly inferior to the Detective Society, and always will be.’

  Alexander looked rather hurt. George merely raised his eyebrows at her.

  The tea arrived, and we all began to eat. I watched George pack his cheeks with cucumber sandwiches. He ate impressive amounts for someone so slender.

  ‘I’m taking your roast beef sandwich,’ said Alexander to George, with his mouth full.

  ‘Don’t you like it?’ I asked George. It seemed quite an inconsiderate, Daisyish thing for the normally kind Alexander to do, and I was surprised.

  ‘I can’t eat it,’ said George. ‘Hindu, you know. I’m vegetarian.’

  I swallowed a large lump of sandwich – it was either crab paste or salmon, I can never tell – in surprise. I have become so used to tucking the un-English parts of myself away, politely pretending that they do not exist. My grandparents’ religion stays in Hong Kong, along with my silk dresses and my little half-sisters. But here was George, calmly mentioning not being Christian as though it was quite an ordinary thing.

  ‘He can’t even go to chapel,’ said Alexander. ‘They beat him for it at school, at first, until his father sent a letter to tell them to stop.’

  ‘He cried at the beatings,’ said George, rolling his eyes. ‘I ended up looking after him.’

  Alexander tugged on his cuffs again, looking rueful. ‘It was wrong of them,’ he said.

  ‘So it was,’ said George. ‘But there wasn’t any point sobbing about it. Anyway, don’t you want to hear my idea? That’s what we’re here for, after all.’

  ‘What is it?’ I asked.

  ‘It’s quite simple,’ said George. ‘We all want to work on the case, and find out what is behind Donald’s accidents. But Daisy doesn’t want to work with the Pinkertons. So what about a bet?’ He looked around the table, his eyes glowing. ‘Junior Pinkertons versus the Detective Society. You say you’re better detectives than we are, and we say that’s not so. Let’s prove it, one way or the other.’

  I felt a burst of excitement go through me. It really was a most excellent idea. For once, after all, no one had been murdered. We could play a game without worrying. In the festive warmth of the tea room the holiday seemed very bright. ‘Yes!’ I said.

  ‘Hmm,’ said Daisy, frowning and nibbling at her slice of cake. I knew she was only pretending. And sure enough – ‘Oh, all right! But only because I know that we are better than you, and we will get to the truth first.’

  Alexander beamed. There was a dimple in his left cheek. ‘I agree with Daisy and Hazel,’ he said. ‘This will be excellent fun!’

  ‘All right!’ said George. ‘Now that’s agreed, we must think of the technical side of the bet. What are we looking to prove?’

  ‘That someone is really and truly after Donald,’ said Daisy at once. ‘The attacks against him are not merely pranks, or accidents; they are intended – and they are growing in severity. I believe something truly terrible will happen before Christmas Day, Donald’s birthday.’

  ‘Yes,’ said George. ‘We do too. And we think we know who that someone is. So far we are in agreement. So we need – let’s see – irrefutable evidence of his intention to seriously hurt Donald. It must be something that will stand up if we take it to the Master, or the police.’

  ‘Yes,’ said Daisy, nodding.

  ‘And no cheating on the way to getting that information.’

  ‘Ladies never cheat!’ gasped Daisy. ‘No guessing, no fudging answers and no forcing confessions. Proper interviews with witnesses and rigorous examination of clues. Agreed?’

  ‘Agreed,’ said George, nodding. ‘Now, the prize. How about this: the losing society must publicly admit to being wrong. They must tell everyone they were bettered by a rival society – that they were not good enough to win. What about that?’

  It was a truly serious bet. More people know about our society than we would strictly like, especially Daisy, but we are still secret. To reveal ourselves to the world would ruin what the Detective Society stood for. It might even prevent us solving any more cases, for if grown-ups knew what we were doing, they would want to stop us. Could Daisy agree to the possibility of such a loss of face?

  But she was already putting out her hand, very fair against George’s dark one. They shook resolutely, and they both glowed at each other with the sort of excitement that Daisy always gets at the beginning of a case.

  ‘And finally, the window for the bet to be won begins now, Monday the twenty-third of December 1935, and ends … on Christmas Day, at the party for Chummy and Donald’s birthday?’

  I liked that. It gave things a n
ice symmetry. I nodded, and so did Alexander. Even Daisy looked satisfied.

  ‘Let’s all shake on it,’ said George. We all four shook, and clinked willow-patterned teacups, and then George and Alexander turned to each other and did the most complex set of hand gestures I have ever seen.

  ‘What on earth is that?’ I asked, curious.

  ‘The Junior Pinkertons’ handshake,’ said Alexander. ‘It’s terribly good, isn’t it? It took us ages to get right.’

  ‘Huh!’ said Daisy. ‘It isn’t half as fine as the Detective Society handshake. Come on, Hazel, we’ll show them!’

  We put out our hands and shook. These days I can do all the moves with my eyes closed – it feels as natural as blinking. I looked over at Alexander. Was he impressed?

  ‘Not bad,’ said George. ‘Now. The bet begins as soon as we get up from the table. Are you ready? Here is our contribution to the tea. Get set – Alex, GO!’

  And quick as anything, tossing a handful of coins onto the cloth, he leaped up from the table, Alexander behind him, and pelted out of Fitzbillies.

  3

  Daisy’s face was alight.

  ‘Hazel, we must act quickly! Finish off that bun, and let us consider our next actions, so that we can go forward fortified with both knowledge and bunbreak. The boys may have a head start, but you’ll see – we shan’t be beaten. We must go to Maudlin at once.’

  ‘Are you sure we’ll be let in?’ I asked. I was suddenly rather worried. We had been allowed into Maudlin the night before because we were Bertie’s guests – but how were we to run about on our own in a men’s college and collect information without attracting comment? We had been at home at Deepdean, and Daisy was at home in Fallingford, but at Maudlin we were both outsiders.

  ‘Of course we shall,’ said Daisy. ‘We can get by any obstacle. We have solved four murder cases, Hazel, how many times must I remind you? Now, once we are past Mr Perkins in the lodge, where shall we go?’

  ‘Donald’s rooms,’ I said.

  ‘Yes,’ said Daisy. ‘The decanter will still be there – and that was where the bucket incident happened as well. But we must observe the whole staircase, not just one room. And we need to be quick! We only have two days until Christmas, and the end of the bet. Ah, good, there’s the tea maid. Quick, put down your money! We must be away.’

  We galloped down the street to Maudlin. We went in through the lodge door – and my fears came true.

  ‘Hey!’ called Mr Perkins. ‘Girls! Now, what are you doing here?’

  ‘We’ve come to see Bertie!’ said Daisy. ‘Can we go in, please?’

  ‘I’m afraid Bertie’s out,’ said Mr Perkins, tugging at his moustache. ‘Those two boys, Alexander and George, just stopped by with a message from him. He says he particularly doesn’t want you to come in – I think there are presents for you in his rooms.’ He mouthed presents, as though the very word was a secret. ‘So you’re to wait here until he comes to find you. It should only be twenty minutes or so.’

  I heard Daisy hiss next to me. The Pinkertons were throwing tricks in our way already. How would we get out of this one?

  But Daisy was equal to the situation. She approached Mr Perkins and leaned her elbows up on the desk at which he sat.

  ‘Oh, but that’s why we wanted to creep in while he was out!’ she said angelically. ‘We’ve got some baubles that we want to hang up on his door as a surprise for him. Can’t we go by? We won’t go into his room – and we’ll be back out here before he arrives, I promise!’ She fluttered her eyelashes at him again like the most foolish debutante – Daisy, who has climbed to the very top of our boarding house in utter darkness and outwitted murderers and read the whole of War and Peace in two weeks.

  Mr Perkins melted most satisfactorily. ‘Oh!’ he said. ‘Well … I’ll turn a blind eye. But be quick, mind!’

  ‘Thank you,’ said Daisy. ‘And I forgot to mention – on our way here we saw George’s brother Harold. He’s looking for George and Alexander. I’m not sure what about, but it seemed urgent. If you see them, do tell them that he wants them, will you?’

  ‘Of course,’ said Mr Perkins. ‘Go on, then!’

  He winked at us conspiratorially as we went out and into the quad. Along the path we went, all the way to the doorway that led to staircase nine. The door to Michael’s room was ajar, and through it we could hear three people talking. Michael must be back from town – and Alexander and George were talking to him.

  ‘Interviewing witnesses already!’ said Daisy. ‘They think they’re beating us – but they’ll see!’

  She went boldly up to the door and rapped on it with her knuckles. It opened, and Michael looked out.

  ‘Miss Wells?’ he asked. ‘Miss Wong? You shouldn’t be here on your own!’

  ‘Oh, we’re here to leave something for Bertie. And we’ve got a message for George and Alexander,’ said Daisy. ‘Harold’s looking for them – I think it’s urgent. They’re to go to him at John’s at once.’

  Michael stepped aside, and I could see George and Alexander behind him. Alexander looked at us rather ruefully, as though we had betrayed him (I had a pang of guilt), but George smiled at us.

  ‘What a surprise,’ he said. ‘We’ll have to go and see what he wants, I suppose. Come on, Alex.’ He pulled Alexander out of the door into the Quad, but as he passed Daisy and me he turned his head to us and whispered, ‘Not bad. But we’ll be back!’

  Daisy waved them away. ‘We’re off to Bertie’s rooms!’ she said to Michael, and she dragged me up the stairs.

  As we climbed, I looked around. We had been here before, last night, but then I had not been able to think of anything but Alexander. An elephant might have stepped in front of me, and I would have pushed it aside and climbed on. This afternoon, though, all my senses were alive, and I was seeing and thinking clearly again. Our shoes clattered on the stone steps, and echoed around the walls. The staircase was narrow and dark – the only windows were small ones on each landing out onto the quad behind us. Up we went to the first landing, which was empty apart from a coinbox telephone. The door on the left, the lodge side, read Freddie Savage (‘He must be away for the hols,’ whispered Daisy), and on the garden side, the right, was Bertie’s door.

  On the landing above Bertie’s rooms were two doors. On the lodge side was a room that read Alfred Cheng. This door was firmly closed, but as we went past it swung open, and Alfred poked his face out rather crossly.

  ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked us.

  ‘Bertie asked us to leave Chummy a note,’ said Daisy, ready as always with a plausible excuse.

  ‘Huh!’ said Alfred, unimpressed, and he swung his door shut again.

  On this landing, the door on the garden side said James Monmouth. It was slightly open, and I could see that inside it was empty. The room had clearly just been redecorated. All the furniture was covered with sheets, and the walls were freshly painted and papered. I took a few steps inside, and saw that it was laid out just like Donald’s had been the night before, only the other way about. The fireplace was set in the middle of the wall opposite the door, with the sofa in front of it and a desk on its right. But while Donald’s rooms had only one window, facing on to the quad, this room had an extra window between his bedroom door and the fireplace, that looked out onto the garden. It was much lighter and more pleasant than Donald’s lodge-side room had been.

  Up we went again, to the third landing that still seemed as dizzyingly high as it had last night. This time the rooms on the garden side read Charles Melling, and the one to its left Donald Melling. Between them was a small door to what looked like a box room. I wondered whose it was. I also wondered that Chummy had taken the garden room, though he was the younger brother – it was yet more proof of how much he controlled Donald.

  Donald’s door was tantalizingly open, and Daisy and I both moved towards it as quickly as we could. I could see a white dent on the stone floor, just inside the open door. I had not noticed it last night –
I had been too nervous – but of course that must have been where the bucket had fallen. And there in the dimness, was the table where the drinks had been set out the evening before. Glasses and decanters were still ranged across it.

  ‘All right, Watson!’ hissed Daisy. ‘Time to detect!’

  We moved forward, into the room.

  4

  The air inside Donald’s rooms smelled stale, of many breaths let out and curtains kept closed. Daisy wrinkled up her nose, and I pinched my lips together. I remembered Moss, the bedder who tidied the students’ rooms, and thought that he must not be very good at his job. It was lucky for us. The table was still scattered with port glasses, there were wine stains on the cloth and I could even see an abandoned bow tie. There was the decanter itself too, its crystal dulled by the dark liquid still inside it. Daisy pounced at it at once, unstoppering it and taking a deep sniff.

  ‘Daisy!’ I said. ‘Careful!’

  ‘Oh, it’s quite all right, Hazel,’ said Daisy. ‘Mistletoe isn’t poisonous enough for a sniff to do any harm.’

  I still thought that I would not take the risk. ‘Is it mistletoe, though?’ I asked.

  Daisy paused, breathing in even more deeply. Then she nodded. ‘Oh yes, I should say so,’ she said. ‘And’ – she held the bottle up in front of her, peering into its depths – ‘yes, look! You can see there’s something rolling about in the residue, something round. Here, give me your handkerchief, and that empty glass.’

  ‘Why?’ I asked.

  ‘I’m going to make a filter with it,’ said Daisy.

  I stepped backwards.

  ‘Oh, come now! You’ve got plenty more handkerchiefs, I’ve seen them.’

  I was going to point out to Daisy that she had plenty more as well – but we were somewhere we ought not to be, doing something that we certainly ought not to do, and I thought that it was best to get Daisy’s plan over with as quickly as possible. So I passed her my handkerchief, and one of the clean glasses at the back of the table. Daisy held the handkerchief over the glass. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘Pour.’

 
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