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Title: The Arrow Affair
Fandom: Who Killed Cock Robin? (Fairytales and Folktales)
Rating: General
Warnings: None
Words: 2,800
Summary: When Thomas "Cock" Robin is murdered in an unusual fashion, Inspector Rousette must follow the trail that leads to the murderer.
Author's Note: Based on the traditional nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin? and this retelling. Written for [community profile] once_upon_fic as a treat for [personal profile] evilmuffins, who said "I'd love to see this framed as a Victorian murder mystery, with the animal characters being represented as humans instead." This ended up set in the 1920s, as I'm more familiar with those stories (and owe a great debt here to Josephine Tey's Inspector Grant), but I hope satisfies the desire to see this retold in something like the form of an English Country House Murder Mystery. Thanks to my usual beta.

oOo


Inspector Rousette pulled back the sacking and surveyed the body with a keen eye. "Who's our victim, Sergeant?"

"Thomas Robin, sir," Sergeant Gowk replied promptly. "Known to his friends as 'Cock' Robin." He added, with a touch of malice in his tone, "Well-deserved, too, if you ask me."

"How's that?" Rousette quirked a brow in Gowk's direction. The sergeant was stationed at Great Rhymington, five miles away, and looked like he was going to be exactly the kind of source of local knowledge that Rousette would rely on in a case like this.

"Always full of himself, he was. Lording it over the village lads. Reminding them that all this belonged to him—or would do, one day." Sergeant Gowk gestured at the fields either side of the path on which the body lay. "Careering round the lanes in that damned motor-car of his like a lunatic. Had words with him more than once about it myself, but he just laughed and said he'd try to be more careful next time. Used to invite his friends down from town for wild parties, with all sorts of—." The sergeant checked suddenly and then added in a more reserved tone, "Well, so they do say, sir. Couldn't bear witness to such goings on myself."

"Yes, quite," Rousette agreed dryly. "That'd be at Rhymington Manor?" He nodded towards the house, half-hidden by tall elms, that commanded a view of the surrounding countryside and the village of Little Rhymington from some three-quarters of a mile away from their present location.

"Yes, sir." The sergeant nodded. "Just him and his poor old ma—Lady Robin, that is—rattling round that great big place on their own, these days. There's a sister out in Africa somewhere, married to a District Commissioner or some such, but it's just him and the old lady now."

"And the servants," Rousette added, almost absently. And the farmhands, and the village lads, and anyone else that this Cock Robin had 'lorded it over', to the point that one of them had chosen to put an end to his misery in a most unusual fashion.

For, while Inspector Rousette had seen many murder victims in his time, this was the first occasion he had encountered a victim shot through the heart by an arrow.

oOo


Rousette made a search of the ground around the body while he waited for the local doctor to arrive and carry out a preliminary examination. He discovered nothing relevant. Of course, the murderer had only needed to get within bow-shot of his victim, which would make it, what, a hundred yards? Two hundred?

Noting again, the position in which Robin had fallen—on his back, with his arms spread wide and a surprised expression on his face—Rousette turned and looked down the path in the direction Robin seemed to have been walking. The track, running along one side of a field of barley, headed towards and then past the edge of a small copse. "I'll be right back," Rousette told Gowk, and set off down the path.

The weather had been dry and there were no tell-tale footmarks under the trees, but Rousette noted a half dozen bent leaves and snapped twigs on a bush a step or two off the beaten earth of the main thoroughfare. Facing the body again—the sergeant had been joined by a tall, spare figure in tweeds, who must be Doctor Lyon—Rousette bent his right arm, and then lifted and thrust it back. When he glanced over his shoulder, he found his elbow was pointing almost directly towards the broken patch in the bush—if a few inches too high. The murderer must have been six or eight inches shorter than Rousette, he estimated.

Something else caught his eye, as the wind stirred it and it glittered in the sun: a wisp of coarse linen caught on another branch and, just beside it, a long golden hair. Rousette carefully picked them off the branch and folded them safely away inside a clean handkerchief. Yes, someone with fair hair and wearing a linen garment had waited here, and carefully and in cold-blood shot young Master Robin as he came down the path.

The question now was whether the murderer had simply chosen someone at random—unlikely—or known that this particular young man would be heading down this particular path at this particular time.

Rousette made his way back towards the sergeant and the doctor. By the time he reached them, Doctor Lyon had finished his examination. "The cause of death is clear," he told Rousette in a pompous tone, gesturing at the arrow in Robin's chest. "No other signs of violence."

"And his pocketbook is still on him, sir," Gowk put in. "So the motive doesn't seem to have been robbery."

"No, I rather thought it wouldn't be," Rousette remarked, still wondering who had been waiting in the little copse and how they had known their victim would be passing. Stepping back to let two of the farmhands load the corpse onto a hurdle, he added, half to himself, "Why a bow?"

"Quieter, sir?" Gowk offered. "Gave the murderer more time to make his escape. It's still several weeks to hunting season, so a gunshot would quickly draw attention. And they're not so hard to find hereabouts: the local poachers use them for much the same reason, so I'm led to understand. "

"Yes, of course." Rousette smiled at Gowk; the sergeant, unlike many of his country counterparts, was clearly a sharp one. "Thank you. Could you finish up here and meet me up at the manor when you're done. I should have completed some of my preliminary enquiries by then.

oOo


An hour later, Rousette had established from Robin's manservant, Haggister, and from Linnet, the butler, that Master Thomas had risen at his usual hour, breakfasted, and then set out with what seemed to be somewhat unusual purpose for a walk. "No, not much of a walker, sir," Linnet had admitted, when Rousette had pressed him. "I got the impression he'd arranged to meet with someone and was maybe running late."

Now Rousette was offering his condolences to a distraught Lady Robin. She was sitting on a sofa in the drawing room, with the Reverend Rooke, from St Mary's at Great Rhymington, dancing attendance at her elbow. Rousette was also delicately attempting to quiz her about her son's routines and habits. However, every question merely set the lady off into a new paroxysm of wringing her hands and crying, "Oh my poor boy! My poor, beautiful boy!" and Rousette quickly realized that his efforts to learn anything from her were futile.

He rose from the chair on which he had settled himself. "Madam, clearly this is a distressing time. I will leave you to compose yourself and hope we may speak later." Rousette inclined his head in the direction of Reverend Rooke and added, "But perhaps I might have a word, sir?"

Rooke followed him out of the room and then indicated they should avail themselves of the library on the other side of the hall. "You knew the boy well?" Rousette asked, after Rooke had shut the door.

"Well enough, Inspector." The way Rooke emphasized the last word and looked down his long nose at Rousette made his disdain for either Rousette's profession or Rousette himself quite clear. "It has been my pleasure to hold the living at Great Rhymington since before Master Thomas was born."

"And he was, what, twenty one?" Rousette already knew Thomas Robin's date of birth, helpfully supplied by Sergeant Gowk, but he thought Rooke would enjoy correcting him.

Clearly Rooke did. "Not quite," he said with a slight sniff.

"And I'm sure the young man was an industrious sort? Helping his mother to run the estate, that sort of thing? Following his father's death?" Rousette cast a glance at the large desk that occupied a considerable part of the library.

"Pembroke," Rooke offered and then, evidently deciding—incorrectly—that the word would meaning nothing to Rousette, he added in a kindly tone, "He was up at Cambridge."

Rousette resisted the temptation to inform Rooke he was a Magdalene man himself. Instead, he contented himself with letting a frown settling on his face, remarking eventually, "But isn't it still Easter Term? Another fortnight or so, I should think?"

A faint grimace crossed Rooke's face. He was now eyeing Rousette with a mixture of respect, suspicion and irritation. "Rusticated," he admitted at last. "An issue with the bedders, I understand."

"Yes, I see." Rousette inclined his head. "Well, I'm sure there'll be no need to mention that, unless it's strictly necessary." Rousette had a feeling it might well be: one of the locals taking exception to the little lordling paying too close attention to a girl he was sweet on? That was motive enough in Rousette's book. "And you can't recall hearing of any grudges anyone hereabouts might hold?"

Rooke's eyes narrowed. "None," he snapped. "And now, unless you have any further questions, I should return to Lady Robin."

"Of course." Rousette smiled pleasantly at him. "Thank you for your assistance, Reverend. It's been... most illuminating."

Leaving Rooke behind, Rousette headed next for the baize door under the stairs that led to the offices. The butler and manservant had been tight-lipped when he'd questioned them, but with any luck he'd find a housemaid or footman in the mood for a gossip.

oOo


What he found was the cook, a formidably proportioned woman by the name of Swann. She was kneading dough, sleeves rolled up to reveal arms that would have have been the envy of many a prizefighter in Bethnal Green, while a scullery maid of perhaps fourteen was shelling peas at the other end of the table.

Both raised their heads to look at him as he entered, though neither stopped work. Mrs Swann's eyes narrowed for a moment, assessing him, before clearing to something more neutral, if still not welcoming. When Rousette introduced himself, the scullery maid started, violently enough to knock over the bowl of peas and send them rolling along the table towards the cook.

"Oh, you clumsy girl!" Mrs Swann gestured helplessly with her floury hands. "No, no, Inspector, please don't!" This last was directed at Rousette, who had started to help the kitchen maid gather up the errant peas. "Polly, leave that alone, do, and put the kettle on. I'm sure the Inspector would appreciate a nice cup of tea at this time of day."

"I would indeed." Rousette smiled at her, but went on gathering peas, while Polly used both hands to lift the heavy iron kettle, clearly already filled, from its place beside the range and set it on the hotplate.

"The green china, Polly," Mrs Swann instructed. "And I'll be ready for a cup myself when I'm done with this. Inspector, please do leave them peas alone and sit down."

Rousette complied, pulling out a chair which would let him watch Polly from the corner of his eye while he appeared to be giving his whole attention to Mrs Swann. "I was just hoping to have a few words," he explained. "Ask a few questions. You must all be very distressed about the events of this morning. The young master's death...."

"Quite," Mrs Swann said in a short tone, that could have been caused by grief—or by relief only partly hidden. She gave the dough a final vicious punch and then set the bowl aside and began to wipe her hands. Rousette suspected she was not as used to having to mask her feelings as the servants who came into more regular contact with the family.

Rousette absently picked at an imaginary piece of lint on his cuff as he threw out his next question. "I was just wondering. Did Master Robin have any enemies? Anyone he'd quarrelled with recently? Anyone who might hold a grudge?"

The last word was drowned out by the sound of breaking china. Turning, he saw Polly had dropped the tea tray she'd been carrying and was staring down at a heap that had once been two tea-cups, two saucers and a sugar bowl.

"Polly!" Mrs Swann roared. Then, as Polly stood there quivering, with her fists pressed to her mouth and her eyes fixed on Rousette, Mrs Swann cried, "Oh, get on out with you and fetch in some more water. At least you can't break that!"

Polly fled. Mrs Swann stomped around the table and began to collect the pieces of china. Rousette got to his feet with an apologetic cough. "I can see it would be best for me to return at a more propitious time." Before Mrs Swann could reply, he sauntered out after Polly. He suspected Mrs Swann had told him all she could—or, rather, would—tell him, but that his visit to the kitchen had not been entirely wasted.

Beyond the door through which Polly had disappeared, Rousette found the scullery, with its pump over a stone sink, but no sign of Polly. He carried on, through another door and out into a courtyard. Polly had run to the far side and was talking frantically to another maid standing in the doorway of one of the outbuildings that lined the courtyard. The second girl shushed Polly as she caught sight of Rousette.

He crossed the courtyard slowly, using the time to observe the two girls. He guessed they were sisters: the same fair hair, just escaping from under their headscarves; the same blue eyes and pretty faces—now pale and drawn. He stopped in front of them. "I'm sorry I frightened you, Polly."

Polly made no answer. The other girl eyed Rousette warily, and then gave her sister a slight push. "Go on, Polly. Go and help Mrs Swann. I'll talk to the Inspector."

Polly hesitated for a moment and then scurried past Rousette and back into the house.

"Alice Sparrow," the second girl offered. Rousette guessed she was seventeen or eighteen.

"Polly's your sister?" Rousette stepped forward on the pretence of taking a look at the inside of the outbuilding in which Alice had been working—the laundry—but really so that he could slide his gaze sideways and gain a better look at the corner of the headscarf that lay on Alice's shoulder. The closer look confirmed a frayed edge, where a small piece had been torn off. And—Rousette compared her stature with his—Alice was just the right height.

"Yes." Alice hadn't moved, though she was looking at him sideways.

Rousette turned so they were standing side by side. "A bad business this, with Master Robin. Someone must have hated him very much, to lure him out on the path like that and wait for him and shoot him. They'd have to be quite strong, I think, to draw a bow." He let his gaze drop to Alice's arms, hanging loosely by her sides. Arms that could scrub and pound and lift and wring the heavy wet laundry soaking in the tub inside the door.

Alice was silent, but still watching him closely.

"I found the spot where he—where they stood while they did it," Rousette went on. "A few broken leaves and—the strangest thing. A little scrap of linen and a hair." He reached out and picked up the corner of Alice's headscarf for a moment, before letting it drop again.

She went on standing there wordlessly and he waited. Finally, she turned and looked at him full face. "Will I hang?" she asked quietly.

"Probably." He gave a slight shrug. "I'm sorry." She really had been very pretty once, before bitterness and fear and the actions of a spoiled monster had beaten her down. Because it wasn't difficult to put together the clues that Sergeant Gowk and the Reverend Rooke had provided and figure out who was a victim first.

"It doesn't matter." Alice reached up and pulled off the headscarf, revealing hair the colour of ripe barley. She held out the square of linen for Rousette to take. "My life was already ruined. But at least now he won't hurt Polly, or any of the other girls. At least they're safe from him."

Rousette nodded. Sometimes he took no pleasure in doing his job.

"Shall I fetch the bow?" she asked. "So you have all the evidence?"

"Please." He folded the headscarf carefully, making sure the ragged corner was neatly tucked inside and watched her set off across the courtyard to one of the other outbuildings. He had no fear she'd try to run. She reminded him very much of her namesakes, as he'd seen them in the private garden in the centre of the London square where he lived: soot-dimmed, but small and fierce and sharp, defending them and theirs from the showy cock robins that would try to claim everything.

Rousette had always preferred the sparrows.

oOo


End Notes: A rousette is a kind of bat, Gowk is an old name for the common cuckoo in Northern England, while Haggister is an old Kentish name for the magpie.

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