The Problem of the Missing Miss (12 page)

BOOK: The Problem of the Missing Miss
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“Imagine! Sharing a railway carriage with Mr. Lewis Carroll!” Miss Griggs beamed at her idol, who responded with a weak smile of his own, and a look directed at Dr. Doyle that said, Look what you just got me into. “What are you writing now, Mr. Carroll?”

“Actually,” he said, “I am working on a new story, to be called ‘Sylvie and Bruno.' Some of it is in verse,” he added.

“And I suppose you are also a writer?” Miss Belfridge surveyed Dr. Doyle through her spectacles.

“On occasion,” Dr. Doyle admitted.

“There! I knew it when I set eyes on you!” The two ladies nodded to each other as if to agree on their mutual findings.

“Is this your first trip to Brighton?” Dr. Doyle asked politely.

Miss Belfridge nodded. “I have a connection who lets rooms,” she confessed. “And when she asked if I could come, I decided to do it.”

“On the spur of the moment,” giggled Miss Griggs.

“Brighton is very pleasant at this time of year,” Mr. Dodgson offered, “but rather crowded. I trust you will have a pleasant stay.” He seemed to fold into himself.

Dr. Doyle smiled at the two ladies, and privately wished them elsewhere. He wanted to talk about the Case, but now that would be impossible. He glanced over at the stout man in the corner, who snored loudly.

What an adventure! How odd that it should be wasted on a gentle old duffer like Dodgson! He felt the older man shrinking into his seat next to him, and wondered what the poor old fellow made of it all. Kidnapped children, houses of ill repute, mysterious deaths … what fodder for the writer! Dr. Doyle glanced at his companion and wondered if, perhaps, he could get Mr. Dodgson to read some of his unpublished stories. The opinion of a published writer, even one like Mr. Dodgson, would always be of value. Dr. Doyle gazed out the window and dreamed dreams of glory.

Mr. Dodgson's thoughts were far from glorious. He wished that he had never accepted Lord Richard Marbury's offer of a child companion. He wished Dr. Doyle would not be so ebullient. He wished the train would get to Brighton so that he could get on with his self-imposed task of finding Miss Alicia Marbury. Most of all, he wished that the two women opposite were not so lavishly scented with some floral odor that permeated the stuffy carriage. It teased at his nostrils. He had smelled something similar, and quite recently, too …

He went over the situation in his mind. The logic of it escaped him. How could the abductors think that Lord Richard, who had staked his reputation on Reform, would give way now? Unless … Mr. Dodgson cogitated as the train rumbled through the countryside to the seashore.

Dr. Doyle glanced at his traveling companion with a kind of exasperated pity. I can use this, he thought to himself. I can write the whole thing up, with suitable changes of name, of course.
Cornhill
is usually good for a tenner, and the extra money comes in handy, now that I'm a man with a family to support. He thought of Touie, faithfully waiting for him at Mrs. Keene's lodgings, and hoped that she had found amusement while he was pursuing these dastardly criminals.

Touie, at that moment, was on the Esplanade, contemplating the crowd. She had spent the morning happily pottering about in those shops particularly recommended to her by Mrs. Keene, who seemed to have friends and relations up and down the Steine. She had daringly entered a teashop, all on her own, and had had a luncheon of egg sandwiches, cakes, and tea. She had watched the Punch and Judy, and was sitting on one of the benches, observing the scenery and wondering when Arthur would get back from London, when her eye was caught by a procession (there was no other word for it) of girls strolling down the Esplanade, led by a tall young woman with astounding red hair, visible under her straw hat.

Touie tried to assimilate what she was seeing. The girls themselves were well-dressed and good-looking—rather remarkably so, Touie concluded, given that most children between twelve and fifteen were in the podgy, spotty stage. They seemed to walk with a kind of brazen confidence, as if they knew just how good-looking they were; not a trait fostered in most homes of Touie's experience. She picked up her packages and drew closer.

There was something wrong about this. If only Arthur were here, she thought. He's so clever! But I shall tell him, as soon as he returns from London. He told me to watch for anything unusual. I think this may be it.

As Touie watched, a cry came up from the stony beach below the pier. “Help! There's a man down here!”

A fisherman in a damp jersey and trousers joined the growing crowd. A large young man in the familiar blue tunic and helmet of the police leaned over the railing of the Esplanade and added his voice to the din.

“Looks like he had an accident!” someone shouted up.

“I'll get the ambulance,” the policeman offered.

“Too late for that,” the fisherman declared. “He's long gone.”

As Touie watched, the policeman shouldered through the crowd to examine the body that had been left by the outgoing tide.

“Must have fallen in at the neaps,” offered the fisherman sagely. “High tide was an hour ago.”

“Anyone recognize him?” asked the constable, looking about the beach.

The silence was deafening.

“I'll have him taken up to the station,” the policeman decided. “If you hear anything of someone gone missing, let us know, hey?”

The fisherman nodded. The horribly limp body was dragged onto a fishing net, bundled up, and brought up to the roadway, where a cart was commandeered to take it elsewhere.

What a dreadful thing! Touie thought. Poor old man; he must have taken too much to drink and fallen into the sea and drowned … although that didn't seem quite right. The railings were quite stout on the piers, and the Esplanade was nowhere near enough to the sea for any danger of drowning. I do wish Arthur were here. I will have to tell him about this when he gets back from London.

In his carriage, Dr. Doyle was mentally embroidering the adventure to relate to his friends in Portsmouth. Meeting with Lord Richard Marbury himself … bringing a gang of filthy ruffians to justice! What a tale for the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society! The only thing missing was the ending … and that, Dr. Doyle decided, he would not forego. Whatever happened, he would stick with Mr. Dodgson until he learned what had happened to little Miss Mar-bury, and the kidnappers had been properly punished.

The train wheezed and whistled preparatory to arrival in its terminus. Miss Belfridge and Miss Griggs looked about them for their various bundles and handbags. The stout man, who had snored straight through the ride, miraculously woke up, just in time to open the door to the carriage and disappear into the crowd. It was up to Dr. Doyle to assist Miss Griggs and Miss Belfridge off the train. The two ladies thanked their acquaintances profusely and apparently set off on further adventures.

Dr. Doyle and Mr. Dodgson were left to look for Mr. Upshaw and Inspector MacRae in the mass of humanity pouring toward them.

“I suspect they will wish to see the last of us,” Mr. Dodgson said, when he spotted them. “Dr. Doyle, you have been of invaluable service, but you really must go back to your wife.”

Dr. Doyle grinned boyishly. “I shall accompany you back to the police station,” he said firmly. “Scotland Yard or no Scotland Yard, I want to find out what my colleague thinks of that girl's body. And I do want to hear Upshaw make the positive identification. Then I shall have dinner with Touie. Will you join us, Mr. Dodgson?”

“Oh, I really …”

“It would give both of us great pleasure to have you to dinner,” Dr. Doyle said firmly. “We can dine at Old Ship, which is considered quite good, I believe.”

“I suspect my friends, the Barclays, will wish me to dine with them,” Mr. Dodgson said desperately. He looked about him for some source of rescue from his rescuer. With an odd sense of relief he hailed the two men walking toward him: “Inspector MacRae? Mr. Upshaw? Dr. Doyle and I would like to accompany you to the police station, to make a final and positive identification of the young person, and to give the particulars of Miss Marbury's abduction.” “Yet again” was unspoken, but hung in the air nonetheless.

Behind them, the two women in severely cut linen dresses watched with narrowed eyes. Three large men in grimy, collarless shirts and leather waistcoats worn open over heavy corduroy trousers emerged from the crowd.

“You from Lunnon?” the largest of the three bruisers addressed Miss Belfridge.

“Mrs. J. wants them two followed.” Miss Belfridge pointed out the dark coat of Mr. Dodgson and his tweed-clad companion.

“And warned off,” added her friend.

There was a brief exchange of coins; then the two putative schoolmistresses boarded the next train back to London, while their companions followed Mr. Dodgson and Dr. Doyle out of Brighton Station and into the crowded streets.

CHAPTER 12

If anything, the crowds in Brighton on this Saturday in August were even more intense than those of Friday. Early Closing meant that the local population could join the transients on the pebbled beach, where they could observe the visitors making fools of themselves, sauntering on the beaches or experimenting on Volk's Electric Railway. Children ran screaming to their parents with scraps of seaweed washed in by the tide. Older folk sat on the benches along the Esplanade, or observed the passing show on the Marine Parade, while flashier persons of both sexes displayed their prowess on horseback by taking the perilous hill at a moderate trot.

The indigenous population was not entirely free of the cares of the week. The fishermen had pulled in their boats and were hawking their wares at one end of the beach, while the robust proprietors of bathing machines were ensuring that modesty prevailed among those intrepid enough to try sea bathing.

The sounds of music mingled with the roar of the crowd, as street buskers vied for the attention of the strollers on the Esplanade. At the entrance to the West Pier, the Brighton City Band played the airs from Dr. Sullivan's clever operettas, while further down the strand a lone violinist solicited pennies from the few who could appreciate Mendelssohn. Below the Esplanade, ragged boys called “happy-jacks” capered about, turning somersaults and shouting encouragement to those who threw coins down at them. A few brazen girls even walked on their hands, displaying scarlet drawers and striped stockings to the delight of the onlookers above them.

At the railway station, cabs jostled each other to snare the new arrivals, the cabbies all too aware of the swift passage of time. The influx would come to a boil by teatime, and then fall off, as the visitors sought entertainment further down the hill.

Into this hurly-burly shoved Inspector MacRae, with Upshaw close behind him. It was all Dr. Doyle and Mr. Dodgson could do to keep up with them.

“You'd think they were trying to lose us,” Mr. Dodgson puffed.

Dr. Doyle's ineffable spirits refused to be dampened. “They may try, sir, but they will not succeed.”

MacRae shoved Upshaw into the nearest cab. “John Street,” he ordered.

Dr. Doyle chortled happily. “John Street is their destination, and to John Street you and I shall go. Follow me!”

He grabbed the protesting Mr. Dodgson by the arm and started east on Trafalgar Street, past rows of houses, all built to the same pattern.

“But”—the scholar shook off his protector—“would we not be better suited in a cab?”

Dr. Doyle gestured at the line of horse-drawn vehicles, all crammed into the Queen's Road. “I know a better way.” He ducked into a side street and led Mr. Dodgson away from the crowds, unaware of the three burly men behind them.

“Where are we going?” Mr. Dodgson asked.

Dr. Doyle explained: “This street runs across the town and comes out just behind the Pavilion, quite near the Grand Parade. From there we may cross the road to the law courts, and meet Inspector MacRae on the doorstep.”

Mr. Dodgson looked about him at the four-story buildings, jammed neatly into square rows, each with its own cornices and areaway. The shops were being closed by their proprietors, shutters being fastened, giving the streets a closed, almost hushed look.

“Just around this corner, we come out into North Street” Dr. Doyle promised. He led the way back and forth, across newly laid brick-paved streets, each of which looked exactly the same as the last, with only the signboards on the shops to give any indication that they had progressed any closer to John Street Police Station than they had before.

Mr. Dodgson looked up, surveyed the scene, and declared, “We are back where we began. I suppose we must go in the opposite direction to where we wish to go, in order to arrive at our proper destination.”

“That's nonsense,” Dr. Doyle said.

“Of course it is,” Mr. Dodgson countered. “And so is my conviction that we are getting nowhere.”

Dr. Doyle grimly pressed on. Once the shopkeepers had closed, the customers drifted off, leaving only a few desultory strollers to examine the wares in those windows that were not covered by wooden barriers.

Behind them, the three large men in leather waistcoats moved closer.

“Dr. Doyle, I do believe we are being followed,” Mr. Dodgson said sharply. “I strongly suggest that we remove ourselves from this locality as quickly as possible. I do not like the look of this at all!”

They went around yet another corner. The three men moved closer. Mr. Dodgson laid his hand on Dr. Doyle's arm.

“I sincerely hope you know something of self-defense,” the older man said. “I am not a timid person, but I do not think those three men behind us wish us well.”

“Just one more turn …” They took it, and came back into the daylight world of Brighton as they knew it. Before them was the Pavilion, that quasi-Oriental fantasy wrought by the Prince Regent and his various architects. Beyond it, John Street and the police station. When they looked behind them, the three men had vanished.

BOOK: The Problem of the Missing Miss
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