JOURNEY WITH A STRANGER -3

2 Aug

JOURNEY WITH A STRANGER -3

Maria looked nervously at the man in the driving seat of the Rolls Royce car. He was wearing some kind of uniform, with a peaked hat perched solemnly on his head.

“Who are you?” asked Maria, “and why are you following me?”

“Following you? Not exactly, my dear, but I really believe you deserve an explanation,” he replied. “I don’t want you to worry but I think you might have accidentally found yourself in the middle of something I don’t really understand just yet, but which might turn out to be rather nasty.”

“I just went for a job…” Tears were coming again, she could feel them pricking her eyes and moistening her cheek. “I left school last week and everyone knew I’d be working for the Bensons … but when I got there … Mrs Benson was nasty to me, and that Luke … and I don’t know what to do…”

“I’m sorry,” he murmured, “I really am.”

He started the engine but Maria could barely hear it purring as he pulled forward.

“And you were following me,” she wept, “in your car, there at every turn, watching me…”

He shook his head slowly and glanced at her. “I wasn’t following you as such,” he said when they were under way. “I’ve been keeping an eye on the Benson man for some time. Some very important people are interested in what he gets up to and I suppose it’s my job to report back to them. And If I’ve learned anything I’ve learned that he’s not a very nice person to know. In fact, it’s best if you don’t know him at all, especially a young girl like you with all her life ahead of her. And it’s certainly sensible not to work for him.”

“Mrs Benson sent me away,” sniffed Maria, “and told me to tell Ma she isn’t wanted any more either. Ma works in the kitchen when they need an extra pair of hands there, not all the time, you know.”

Mr Mason nodded slowly, and steered his car towards the Bigelow home. He seemed to know exactly where he was going, which might have surprised Maria had she thought about it. She lived, as did many ordinary people, in a small cottage, one room downstairs and one upstairs with a partition dividing the bedroom into two. It was modest, to say the least, but then, many poorer people lived in small, sometimes even squalid, conditions. There was nothing remarkable about the Bigelow home – and nothing particularly squalid either.

“She’ll be a lot safer not going to the Benson place,” grunted Mr Mason, “and you certainly so. As I said, it’s my job to keep an eye on the family. Benson might be a rich man, but he’s not above the law and as far as he’s concerned that’s exactly what I am: the law. But his good lady knows a thing or two and has done you a favour, sending you away. Though I don’t know whether she meant to or not. They’re devious people, are the Bensons.”

It was only a short run to where Maria lived, down a leafy lane with a short row of terraced cottages squatting untidily down one side and open fields opposite. After all, Maria had walked to the Big House in little more than twenty minutes, so it really wasn’t far.

He pulled the car to a standstill outside Maria’s home. He obviously knew exactly where she lived as he surveyed the dark green painted front door with its tiny glazed window. But more importantly than that it seemed he had no evil plans for her because he could quite easily have whisked her off into the wilderness, and no-one would have been any the wiser. A flicker of awareness of this crossed her mind, and comforted her. After all, she felt vulnerable, at his mercy.

“You said … my dad?” said Maria quietly, referring to his earlier comment about her father’s death. He had suggested that Mr Benson himself had killed him and that, contrary to her belief, her dad was illegally buried in the Big House garden.

“I wondered when you were going to come back to that,” nodded Mr Mason. “It’s true what I told you. The person you buried in the belief it was your father was someone else, someone the Bensons needed to get buried in a proper church yard. We’ve got our suspicions, but we don’t know who – they had a daughter, for instance, that nobody’s seen for ages. But we do know for sure your father is under the sods of Benson’s garden. As are, we suspect, a few other souls who upset him.”

“I used to play with Jenna, when I was little and mummy took me to work with her sometimes,” sighed Maria.

“Well, she seems to have disappeared. But there are other possibilities too. Dick Prentiss, the old man everyone calls a poacher (and he is one!) seems to have vanished too. A good soul, old Ted, and fond of telling tales over a pint or three in the pub of a winter evening, tales that might have cost him dear. Then the Bensons had a house guest about the same time as your father died, a very important man from London, a toff called Crickly, and nobody’s seen hide nor hair of him either.”

Maria was about to ask how he knew her father had been killed when they were interrupted by a voice from the house. They looked towards Mrs Bigelow standing by the now-open green front door of the tiny cottage. There was an expression of surprise on her face, shock almost, as she noted that her daughter was actually sitting in a Rolls Royce and talking earnestly to a stranger

“Maria! Is that you in that car?” she called her voice coming faintly through the car windows.

“It’s all right mummy!” yelled Maria back. “I’m coming!”

“I’ll come in with you, if I may,” said the man. “I’d like to have a word with your excellent mother. I’m sorry that you’re involved in the problems of others, but I’m afraid that’s the way of the world, especially if you live so close to characters like Benson.”

They climbed out of the car and walked the few yards to where Maria’s mother was standing.

“Who…?” she asked.

“I think I’d best tell you something,” murmured Mr Mason. “I’m afraid you seem to have accidentally got involved in something not particularly pleasant through no fault of your own.”

“Who are you?” she repeated.

“My name is Mason,” he told her, “and if I’m to be called anything you can call me a private investigator. I work in the shadows, so not many people know who or what I am, and at the moment I’m pretending to be the chauffeur of an imaginary gentleman from the Far East. That way I can drive that rather special car, which is a joy, and manage to get to places an ordinary policeman wouldn’t without attracting attention. And my job is to take a close look at the Bensons, who I believe you know.”

“I work for them at odd times,” sniffed Mrs Bigelow, obviously warily. “They’re good to me, especially since my Ted passed on,” she added.

“Mrs Benson said as I was to tell you not to ever go back there…” put in Maria, “and she didn’t want me anywhere near the house.”

“What? She don’t want you to skivvy for her? Oh my good Lord, good Heavens, what will become of us…?” almost wept Maria’s suddenly distraught mother. “It’ll be the workhouse for us, that’s what it’ll be, and the shame, the very shame – and me with no man to support us!”

“There’s no workhouse any more, mummy,” Maria tried to soothe her, “and I’ll get work somewhere. I know I will. I’m young and fit. I’ll bring in some money, enough for the two of us.”

“I’ve already offered you a safe job,” said Mr Mason quietly. “I’ll pay you two pounds a week, all expenses found, and you can be my secretary.”

“But I can’t…” began Maria.

“Type? Do shorthand?” Mr Mason winked broadly at her. “It doesn’t matter, because I really want you since you’re the only person I know who would recognise Jenna Benson if she were to see her, and that’s one young lady I’ve just got to find sooner than soon!”

© Peter Rogerson 02.08.15

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