Hello, and welcome to my 2023 A to Z Blogging Challenge! For a detailed explanation of what I’m up to this year, see my Theme Reveal. But basically, I’m taking all the suspects I made up for my A to Z last year (with help from several commenters!) and putting them all into an actual murder mystery. See the sidebar for links to last year’s posts; if your device doesn’t display sidebars (if, for example, you are visiting on your phone), the links will be under the comment section, right under my A to Z 2023 participation badge.
Chapter Thirteen: Meghan
“You are right about my past,” said Meghan. “When I was very little, I killed my brother. I’d been adopted. They thought they couldn’t have a child of their own. Then Edwin was born, and it was a great miracle. And then I killed him. I must have done it on purpose, out of jealousy. They’d left him in my charge, and I decided to see if he could swim. He couldn’t. And his little blue face. It is always with me. And then my parents sent me away and the papers all said I was wicked. Meghan the Murder Moppet, they called me.”
Gregory blinked. He looked horrified. “That was you?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Meghan. “So you see, I would make quite an unsuitable wife for you. And, though I happen not to have killed Sir Adam and Miss Polly, I understand why Leonard would think I had.”
“I think we’ll need more than your word for it that you did not do this appalling thing, considering your history,” Leonard said stiffly.
Meghan stared at the solicitor as if she barely saw him at all. “One thing I have to say. You said Sir Adam took me in out of kindness. I have never known kindness. I’m not even sure I believe it exists. It wasn’t kindness. He wanted an unpaid companion for his wife, and he knew my secret, and every time I asked for anything besides food and the clothes the servants didn’t want, he’d remind me what the world would think of me if they knew who I was.”
“I’m kind to you,” said Gregory, sounding grumpy. “I’ve always been kind to you.”
Meghan looked tired. “Yes.”
“You’re really the Murder Moppet?” Asked Gregory. Meghan nodded. “Very well, you’d better marry me at once. I can protect you,” he said, gruffly.
Leonard rose to his feet and stood over Gregory and Meghan. “It won’t do,” he said, shaking his head. And then, glowering down at her, his whole body seemed to freeze. “Where did you get that necklace?” he said, tugging at the pendant round Meghan’s neck. It broke at the clasp and was in his hands, the little chain sliding like a golden stream of sand through his fingers as it fell to the floor.
Crowner had seen Meghan look beaten, and cowed, and frightened, and a lot of other things—but he’d never seen her look confused before. She’d always seemed to have a handle on what was what in her own private inferno. Now, she stared at the pendant in the solicitor’s hands, bewilderment written on her delicate features.
“I don’t understand,” she said at last. “That was my mother’s. My real mother’s. It is all I have of her.” And then her eyes met Leonard’s. “Did you know my mother, sir?” she asked.
Leonard stared down at her. “It could be,” he muttered. “You look like her, a little. Yes, there is a little of Rita in you.”
“And do I look like you, at all?” asked Meghan, speaking slowly, as if in a dream.
Crowner looked at the solicitor, then at the girl. Then he exchanged glances with Mug. This was an unexpected development.
“My daughter, a killer,” said Leonard, sinking back into his chair with a tragic gesture. “Indeed, we are punished for our sins.”
“How nice,” said Meghan, with a lifetime’s worth of bitterness, “that I can be viewed as merely a punishment for your sin. That dispenses of me, tidily.”
“What would you have of me? You murdered your adoptive brother, and now you’ve murdered again. I can do nothing for you,” said Leonard, coldly.
“Is my mother alive or dead?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you even know you had a child?”
“She wrote saying something of the matter, but I assumed it was merely an attempt to extract money from me. Even now, I cannot be sure you are my child.”
“She does look like you, sir,” said Sergeant Mug, who’d been glancing between the two faces. “When you know to look for it, that is.”
“If you are really the father of my fiancée…” began Gregory.
“I’m not your fiancée,” said Meghan, quietly. Bruce, who’d been sitting in miserable silence, visibly brightened at these words.
Gregory looked irritated. “Of course you are,” he said.
“No she isn’t,” said Bruce. “Leave the girl alone.” He turned to Meghan. Their faces were so close their foreheads were practically touching. “How old were you when you drowned little Edwin?” He murmured.
“Six. I was six years old,” said Meghan.
“And you think that that taints you for life?”
“The papers said—”
Bruce laughed. “Do you know what the papers said about me, my dear?”
“But you didn’t do it. I did.”
“That’s my point. They were wrong. Don’t you think that they might have been wrong in your case, too? That your adoptive parents were upset and blamed you, and that the papers decided that you’d make a good symbol of something or other, so they blamed you, too? And do you think that ‘Girl, 6, Accidentally Drowns Beloved Baby Brother’ makes quite as good a story as ‘Murder Moppet, Ungrateful Adoptee, Drowns Baby Brother in Fit of Jealous Passion’? Which do you think would sell more papers?”
Meghan stared at him. “That’s a point. I hadn’t thought—” Then her eyes widened. “Did you just call me dear?” She asked.
“You don’t hate me, now that you know my secret?”
“Hate you?” He laughed. “I’m just relieved to finally know what your secret is,” said Bruce. “Now perhaps we can move on.” And he smiled at her. “You’re not going to marry Gregory, are you?”
“No,” Meghan whispered, staring at him.
“He’s rich and handsome,” Bruce pointed out.
“Oh, yes. Very.”
“And he is eager to immolate himself on the pyre of your bad reputation. He’d make a beautiful martyr, you know. Every action performed exactly right. Jesus would have nothing on him.”
Annabelle made a strange gurgling noise deep in her throat. “My little companion creature,” she said, her words slurring horribly, “seems to prefer the secretary to you, Gregory my sweet.” She hiccuped.
Crowner once more had to force himself not to look sentimental. “They may be murderers,” he reminded himself, looking at Bruce and Meghan, looking at each other. “Yes yes yes,” he said aloud. “But let’s just make sure Meghan hasn’t killed anyone more recently than early childhood, shall we?”
Meghan, tearing her eyes with difficulty away from Bruce’s face, frowned at Crowner in concentration. “You blame me for Edwin’s death, too, then?” she said, sounding deflated.
“Actually, no I don’t. I think Bruce is quite right there. You were a child. Practically a baby. And your adoptive parents were fools, to leave you in charge of your baby brother. I think it was an accident, and that you really couldn’t be expected to realize that he’d be unlikely to be able to swim, or how hard it might be to save him, once he was wet and slippery and struggling.”
Meghan’s eyes flew wide open. “Oh! I hadn’t remembered until you said it, about him being slippery and struggling. But now… he punched me in the face, with his little fist, while I was trying to save him. It startled me, and I let go. Perhaps,” and she looked startled, “I’m really not so wicked, after all?”
“I’m afraid you must be,” said Leonard. “You came from a wicked action.” Leonard seemed to be marinating in misery. Almost luxuriating in it.
Crowner, biting his tongue on several remarks he’d like to make, turned his back on the old man and spoke to Meghan. “We know that you and Lady Annabelle were going back and forth between the house and the barn during the time that Sir Adam’s whiskey was poisoned. Of course, either of you could have slipped down the hall into the study during one of these trips and doctored the decanter, with no-one the wiser. I take it you don’t have anything to add to that?”
“No. I can only say that I didn’t do it, and that I’d have no idea where to get poison, if I wanted any. The evening Miss Polly was killed, I was helping Cook out by doing a little work in the kitchen garden.”
“No, I was alone. I have the work to prove that I was there, though.”
“I see. And what is your theory of the crime?”
“Well, I don’t see why it couldn’t be a stranger. I really can’t think that anyone here would be so wicked as to kill anyone. I know what that is like, you see, and what it does to you. It makes you go bad, inside, like an overripe fruit. Oh, I know you’ll say it wasn’t my fault, but that doesn’t matter. I was bad inside, for so long afterwards—and no-one here seems like that. So, I really think it must be no-one we know. Couldn’t it be that?”
And everyone turned to look at Crowner.