15:49 Monday 22 October 2012

The Case of the Midway Milkmaid - Part Four

IN PARTS One, Two and Three, Sister Modwenna and William Ross investigated the kidnapping of the nun’s niece, Ada Bell. Their investigation led them to Ada’s childhood friend James Doyle, but he was arrested before they could discover Ada’s whereabouts.

IT WAS approaching 11 o'clock in the evening when William Ross rapped at the door of the Hinckley Police Station.

His knocking was answered, belatedly, by a gruff-looking officer who the blacksmith did not recognise from his and Sister Modwenna's previous dealings with the Warwickshire-based constabulary.

The strong arm of the law kept the door open just wide enough to poke his head through and look Ross up and down.

"Anyone dead?" he said, his manners matching his appearance.

"No-one new," countered Ross.

"Then come back in the morning," said the ever-helpful bobby, and made to return the door to its previous resting place.

However, the stout leg of the civilian prevented its progress, and caused the officer to regard his late night visitor with fresh resentment.

"What's the idea?" he said, trying a fresh tactic.

"I've been sent here to break one of your prisoners out of jail," declared Ross, grinning.

His words had the desired effect, as the obstacle to his progress opened the door wider and stepped into its frame, filling it almost enitirely with his tall, muscular physique.

"Oh, y'have, have ya? And on whose orders?"

"Those of my colleague, Sister Modwenna."

The name seemed to ring a distant bell in the meat-like skull of the policeman, but clearly not a favourable one, as he responded with a derisive snort.

"Oh aye, I've been warned all about that meddling old bag."

"You should try working with her," said Ross, accompanying this slanderous statement with a dismal smile.

The officer looked confused. "If you've been sent 'ere to break someone out of jail — why are you standing 'ere telling me, rather than goin' at his bars with a chisel or something?"

"Because, my good man, although a debt I owe means I occasionally have to throw my lot in with the meddling nun, I don't have to do what she says. And when I disagree with her orders, well, I just do as I like."

"Sounds fair enough. So what are you doing here?"

"Well, I may not be planning to break anyone out of your cells, but maybe I could sneak this in?" with this tantalising statement still hanging in the air, Ross produced a full bottle of rum from beneath his cloak, its contents glinting in the moonlight.

The officer's eyes sparkling with rare delight at the sight, and he was about to step aside and allow the blacksmith to enter, when a long-forgotten cog in his brain ground into action, and he frowned once more.

"Hang about — I can see why you'd not want to break the law for this nun friend o' yours, but why do you want to bring us some grog? Not that's it not welcome o' course," he added quickly, in case the tipple in question might vanish as quickly as it had appeared.

"Consider it an apology. I know how testing my companion can be, and how ill she treated your sergeant today. She will want to take up her investigation in the morning and no doubt she will be back here with more questions. Perhaps this peace offering will help persuade you to be patient when dealing with her demands?"

The policeman considered the request, and rightly reckoned that a little civility, unusual as it was, would be a small price to pay for a good measure of rum to help pass away the long night.

"You've got yourself a deal young man," he said at last, and ushered his visitor into the station.

***

Being a man of larger-than-average build, it took more of the bottle than Ross had expected before the alcohol did its work, but there was still a third remaining when the policeman's eyes finally fluttered closed and his head fell onto the table in front of him.

The blacksmith waited a few minutes to be sure the officer was asleep, but when he heard a procession of far-from-delicate snores began to emit from his nose, he decided the coast was clear.

He carefully unhooked the cell keys from the policeman's belt, and made his way downstairs to where James Doyle was being held captive.

The prisoner in question — the only one currently incarcerated there — was also fast asleep as Ross made his way to the cell and quietly unlocked the door.

He then hid himself at the far end of the dark corridor and began lightly tossing some small stones in the direction of Doyle's cell, until finally one found its mark and woke the captive.

He turned his head in the direction of the sound and, seeing he was free, hesitated for a moment, but was soon on his feet, running along the corridor and up the stairs.

Ross quickly entered the recently vacated cell, approached the window which looked out at street level, and rapped three times on the bars.

He followed the now ex-prisoner at a safe distance, passing the still slumbering policeman and moving outside.

Here he was met by Sister Modwenna, and her brother, Abraham Bell, who pointed silently down a street leading away from the town centre, and it was in that direction that they progressed.

"Where is Harry Lyman?" whispered Ross.

Bram shrugged. "I told him of our plan and he said he would meet us here. Perhaps he was delayed, but we cannot afford to wait for him," said the farmer.

They could make out the figure of Doyle in the distance ahead, the moonlight aiding them in their pursuit, and they remained a safe distance away, lurking in the shadows of the buildings.

The trio followed Doyle back to the inn where they had met earlier the previous day, where the fugitive entered, before emerging minutes later, untying his horse, mounting it and heading out of town.

Ross and the Bell siblings did the same with their own steeds, and resumed following their target as he made his way into the country.

Doyle was clearly spurring his horse on, as they were making considerable progress, but after a couple of miles, he suddenly stopped and guided his beast to the side of the road.

The three trackers followed suit, and Ross once again leaned in to his companions.

"What is he doing?" he whispered.

However, before anyone could reply, Doyle set off again, this time proceeding much more slowly and carefully.

Puzzled, the others continued following, until Bram suddenly pointed ahead.

"Look!" he said. "Doyle is following someone himself."

Sure enough, just visible on the horizon was another figure on horseback.

There was no time to consider what this meant though, before the stranger entered a house by the side of the road.

Soon after, Doyle approached the building — which was in the middle of nowhere — himself, having left his horse on the opposite side of the road.

Rather than follow the stranger inside however, Doyle instead went to the side of the house and attempted to peer through its darkened windows.

From their vantage point, Ross, Modwenna and Bram could see a light go on in a small window at the very top of the house, and a shadow pass across it.

"What now?" asked Ross, as the intrepid trio dismounted, tied their own horses up and crouched at the side of the road.

Modwenna turned away from the house to look at her friend. "I would suggest that we wait here until we know more of what is going on here. I fancy I have an idea, but I would like to be sure before we proceed. Do you agree, Bram?"

However, when the nun turned back to her brother, she found that he was no longer by her side, having strode purposefully towards Doyle.

The man in question was so lost in trying to see through the window that he did not notice Bram's approach until the farmer had grabbed hold of his collar, spun him around and pushed him up against the side of the house.

"What the hell have you done with my daughter?" spat Bram, his hands now clutching Doyle around his neck. The fugitive tried to speak, but could not find the air to do so.

"Stop, Mr Bell — you're killing him!" said Ross, springing forward.

Still Bram would not relent, and Modwenna stepped in, whispering to her brother: "If you kill him, we might never find Ada."

These words had the desired effect, and Bram finally released his grip slightly.

Doyle took a welcome gulp of air, and looked at his attacker with fear and guilt.

"I did not kidnap your daughter Mr Bell, but I believe I do know where she is."

"Where?!" cried Modwenna and Bram at once.

"Here in this house, I have followed Harry Lyman to this place and I am convinced he is holding her captive."

"Lyman?" roared Bram in confusion. "Why would he kidnap his own fiance? This is a bare-faced lie to try and save your own skin."

"Please," whispered Doyle, "keep your voices down or it could all still end ill for dear Ada."

"Perhaps you should tell us what you know," said Modwenna, "but quickly."

"Very well. As you know, I have been in France, serving in the Army. During my time there, I had stayed in touch with Ada, as we were good friends before I left.

"Last month, she told me that she was engaged to this Lyman.

"I admit that I had haboured hopes that our friendship might grow into something more, but I was happy that she had found someone.

"I related the news to a good friend of mine, and he said that he recognised the name from a story he heard from another soldier about a man with the name Lyman, who had fallen in love with a French woman of low means.

"This Lyman fellow wrote to his father — a magistrate — to ask permission to marry her.

"His father refused, going further to add that if his son did marry the Frenchwoman, he would be cut off from a significant inheritance.

"However, the letter was delayed in reaching France, by which time he had gone ahead with the wedding.

"Lyman now knew that he could not reveal his wife to his father until the latter were dead, and so he moved her back to England, where he could keep her secret.

"That was all my friend knew, and I had to make sure that my darling Ada would not be the victim of a bigamist.

"I returned to England immediately, and wrote a note to Ada informing her that I had suspicions about her fiance, asking if she would meet me.

"However, I arrived too late, and learned that she had been kidnapped.

"I immediately suspected Lyman, and I stayed close to him all day yesterday in the hope that he would sneak back to Ada and I could follow him.

"Alas, the police arresting me prevented that, but when I broke free, I came back to the inn, where they told me Lyman had taken his horse and headed out of town as soon as Mr Bell had left.

"Luckily, I managed to track him down and followed him here."

Bram looked shocked at all that Doyle had related, but it was clear from his face that he was inclined to believe him.

"Well, why are we skulking around out here, let's get in there and save Ada from this wretch!"

"I was waiting to make sure Ada was inside, and I had just heard a woman's voice upstairs when you accosted me."

"That's good enough for me," said Bram, and strode towards the front door.

"Wait!" said Modwenna. "There has been one death already in this case, and it could well have been at Mr Lyman's hand. We do not want to alarm him.

"We also want to make sure he does not escape, with or without Ada, so I would suggest that you," here she indicated her brother, "and Mr Doyle guard the front and rear doors, while Mr Ross and I go inside.

“Hopefully we will not be as emotionally charged as you may be, and can reason with Mr Lyman."

After a brief struggle with his temper, Bram nodded his assent, and he and James Doyle moved to take up the posts suggested by the nun.

Modwenna and Ross then approached the front door and, finding it unlocked, gently pushed it open. They entered a sparsely-furnished hallway, with an equally uncluttered kitchen to one side and a small sitting room to the other.

Both of these were also unoccupied though, and so after a silent exchange of glances, the nun and the blacksmith made their way towards a narrow staircase at the end of the hall.

The stairs creaked worryingly as they ascended towards a door at the top, but there was little they could do but proceed.

Modwenna put her hand out to open the door but Ross gently eased her aside, indicating that he would enter first.

He turned the handle slowly and edged the door open before he and his colleague stepped inside.

They found themselves in an attic room, dimly lit by a lamp at the far end, which also showed two beds, one of which contained a small sleeping figure.

"Ada!" said Modwenna, and sprang forward into the centre of the room. Ross lunged after her, but found his progress impeded by a sudden blow to his cheek, which knocked him to the floor.

Modwenna turned at the sound, and saw Harry Lyman wringing his fist in discomfort at the punch he had just delivered. His other hand contained a knife, which he was holding to the neck of a petrified Ada Bell.

"Aunt Modwenna?" stammered the milkmaid, who looked unharmed apart from her evident alarm and misery at being held prisoner by her fiancé.

"My dear child, are you alright?" said the nun, but Lyman interrupted any possible reply.

"Not another word from either of you," he said, before pulling Ada towards him — the blade still at her bare throat — and stepping towards the door.

"Mr Lyman, please let my niece go. There is no escape for you — my brother and Mr Doyle are guarding the exits to this place."

"Thanks for the warning sister," sneered Lyman, "but I rather fancy they won't try and stop me while I have Ada's life in my hands."

With this he quickly left the room, holding Ada close to him before locking the door behind.

Modwenna bent down to Ross. "Are you hurt?" she asked of her friend.

"Just a little embarrassed to have been knocked down by a man like that."

He was about to enquire what they should do next when a voice from behind reminded them that there was a third person still in the room.

They turned and found themselves looking at a small boy, no more than two or three years old, sitting on the edge of the bed and rubbing his eyes blearily at them.

"Hallo?" he said, confused.

Modwenna walked quickly over to the boy and kneeled in front of him.

"I am Sister Modwenna," she said softly. "What is your name child?"

"Je m'appelle Jacques," said the boy tentatively. "Ou est Maman?"

To be concluded on October 20

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