Maisie Hitchins looked up from the hallway of her gran’s boarding house to see Lottie Lane, the actress who rented the third-floor rooms. She was hanging over the banisters in a most undignified way—Gran would have told Maisie off for doing that—but she still looked beautiful, even upside down.
“Yes, Miss Lane?”
“Maisie, can you bring up tea for me and a guest later on, dear? A friend of mine from the theater is coming to see me.”
Maisie nodded. “I’ll tell Gran,” she said with a sigh as she flicked her duster over the picture frames. Miss Lane vanished back up to her rooms, and Maisie trailed along the passageway to pass on the message.
“What is it, Maisie?” her grandmother asked as she came into the kitchen. Gran was sitting at the big wooden table with Sally, the new maid, showing her how to polish silver properly. Gran complained all the time about Sally not knowing which end of a broom was which, but Maisie thought Gran actually quite liked her.
Sally didn’t seem to mind her new job, even though it was such a huge change from the butcher’s where she used to work. She’d been caught borrowing money from the takings, to pay for her little sister’s doctor’s bills. Maisie had gotten to the bottom of the mystery, then gotten Sally the job with Gran when she was sacked from the butcher’s, so it had turned out all right in the end.
That was what Maisie did best—solving mysteries. She adored puzzles, and was planning to become a detective when she was older. Gran didn’t approve of this idea in the slightest, but Maisie thought there was still time for her to come around to it.
Maisie would scour Gran’s newspaper every day for mention of her favorite detective, Gilbert Carrington. But Mr. Carrington seemed to have disappeared from the papers at the moment.
Maisie’s gran peered at her anxiously, and Maisie stood up straighter and tried to smile. If Gran thought she was bored and miserable, she would probably say that Maisie needed to work harder. She would decide to have spring cleaning early (it was December) and make Maisie take down and wash all the curtains. Or they’d whitewash the kitchen, or some other awful job. Or, even worse, she might decide that Maisie was under the weather and needed a particular disgusting tonic. There was a bottle of cod liver oil at the back of the larder somewhere, and Maisie had no intention of letting Gran dig it out.
“It’s Miss Lane, Gran,” Maisie said. “She says please can I take up some tea for her and a visitor later on?”
“Oh! I wonder who it is,” said Sally, her eyes shining. “It could be a famous actress. I saw Miss Lane in Penny Piece. She was so lovely. I’d love to go on the stage . . .”
“You would not, my girl,” Gran said sharply. “Such nonsense. And the hours that Miss Lane keeps. Never in before midnight! Sleeping till ten! It isn’t right.”
“But, Gran, the shows don’t start till eight! How could she get home any earlier?” Maisie pointed out.
“Humph.” Gran clearly didn’t have an answer for that. “Well, that doesn’t explain why her rooms are always such a mess,” she said with a sniff. “I hope her friend isn’t shocked.”
Maisie giggled. “Miss Lane might just tidy up a bit. She’ll have to, if she wants her friend to be able to sit down.”
“Maisie Hitchins! You’re supposed to clean that room. How can you let her get it into such a state?” Gran said crossly.
“It’s not my fault!” Maisie protested. “I have to dust round the mess, Gran! Miss Lane always says not to tidy up or she can never find anything. She made me promise!”
“Ridiculous,” Gran muttered. “Now, have you finished the dusting?”
Maisie sighed and crouched down to stroke Eddie, her puppy, behind the ears. He had been lurking under the table in the hope that someone might drop something he could eat. Sally had dropped a polishing cloth on his head, but that was all, and he looked as depressed as Maisie did. Maisie thought he was missing detecting too—he was very good at sniffing people out and was as brave as a lion, except when faced with really large alley cats. Maisie called him her faithful assistant. Every proper detective had a faithful assistant.
“Yes, I’ve finished the dusting,” Maisie admitted, expecting Gran to find her another job. She didn’t mind helping out with the work in the boarding house—of course she didn’t. It was very good of Gran to look after her. Maisie’s father was away at sea, and she hadn’t seen him for three years, six months, and eleven days (she kept a note in a little book that lived under her mattress), so Gran was all Maisie had, as her mother had died when she was a baby. Gran worked hard to make ends meet and Maisie was proud to help her. But over the last couple of weeks, it had felt like work, work, work, and nothing else.
Nothing interesting had happened for ages. No mysteries at all. Usually Maisie could at least count on the French lady—Madame Lorimer—who lived on the second floor, to lose her knitting a couple of times a week. Maisie always used her magnifying glass to try to find it. But Madame Lorimer had been confined to bed with a cold, and the knitting was in its basket, just where it was supposed to be. And that meant that Maisie’s lovely magnifying glass had stayed uselessly in the pocket of her petticoat, except when she took it out to polish it.
Gran looked at Maisie with her head on one side. “Well, perhaps you could go to the grocer’s and fetch me a pennyworth of licorice,” she said thoughtfully.
Maisie stared at her. Gran hated licorice, so it must be a treat for her!
Gran reached over to find her purse and handed Maisie the penny with a little smile. “Go on then, and take the dog,” she said, nodding. “Oh, and don’t eat all of the disgusting stuff on the way home, Maisie, or you’ll be sick. Make it last.”
Maisie hugged her. She hadn’t had any money to spend on sweets for ages. The house at 31 Albion Street brought in good money from the lodgers, but times were hard. Maisie knew that Gran was worrying about the leak in the roof, and how she was going to find the money to get it mended. Gran had a bucket in her room collecting the drips, and Sally said it was coming through her side of the attic now too. She’d had to move her bed to stop it from dripping on her nose.
“Are you sure?” Maisie whispered, and Gran smiled.
“A penny won’t matter, Maisie. You’re a good girl. You deserve a treat.”
“Thanks, Gran!” And Maisie hurried away to find her jacket before Gran could change her mind.
That afternoon, ...