Chapter 6 - A Connection Most Deadly

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Murder. It was impossible!

An accusation of this nature seemed completely out of character, even ridiculous, when considering the subject of such rumors. Had the town of Milton lost it collective mind? Mr. Thornton a murderer – how absurd!

Reflecting back on the night before, Margaret remembered the sensation of being equally petrified and relieved by the sound of his rich voice behind her, the low timber of it sending a shiver down her spine.

Though she hadn't realized it at the time, John's sudden assistance at the station had been a blessing, at least for her. How else would she have made it home after the strange man's interference and then her uncharacteristic collapse of fortitude? Walking would have been a grave mistake that late at night, risking her very safety.

For the first time, she began to wonder, why had he been there? As upset as she was at the time, she had not thought to ask him. It seemed strange that he would be out so late at night. Had he been waiting at the station for someone? Returning to Milton? Or departing?

She suddenly felt the blood drain from her face at an intruding thought. Had he been attempting an escape of some sort, her situation ruining his endeavor?

"Mary, what else have you heard? Please, tell me everything," implored Margaret as she ushered Mary over to a chair at the table and proceeded to pour her a cup of tea, gesturing toward a plate filled with biscuits, before sitting down.

The girl, still fidgeting in her uneasiness, likely over relaying such scandalous gossip, took a reviving sip of her tea before proceeding. Her eyes were wide and wandering, her voice shaky. "Well, miss, a man known as Leonards was found dead today about a block from Marlborough Mills." Mary's voice suddenly became very quiet, almost like a whisper. "They say Mr. Thornton was seen walking the same road early this morning."

Though it made no sense to her why Mr. Thornton would leave her home in a carriage only to be seen walking later on, she did feel a sense of relief in knowing that, at least so far, the details seemed more circumstantial than damning. And if the dead man had only been found this morning, perhaps Mr. Thornton had not been attempting an escape last night.

Her sudden pallor gone, Margaret gently chided, "But Mary, just because Mr. Thornton might have been seen walking does not mean he was the person to perpetrate the crime. This could be something as simple as a case of mistaken identity – even a coincidence. Besides, what motive would Mr. Thornton have in harming this Leonards fellow? Does he even know the man?"

"I couldn't say whether Mr. Thornton knows him or not, though I was told one of his servants – I believe her name is Jane – was Leonards' fiancé."

Jane. She vaguely remembered the name from the day of the riot. Fanny had called for a Jane in the drawing room, but for what reason, Margaret could not recall. And she certainly couldn't place a face with the name even if she tried – not with the injury she had sustained. Its effects had physically drained her, temporarily leaving her vision blurred, head aching, and stomach roiling. She had been in no condition to remember much of anything from that day.

"So I assume this Leonards is well known around here?"

"Oh yes, miss, at least in Princeton. He passed our house often enough to visit the Golden Dragon. His reputation is not good. He was a well-known drunk and a cheat when he gambled. Trouble, he was, and that's why no one would hire him on at the mills."

"I'm surprised this Jane accepted his proposal," Margaret mumbled under her breath. Remembering herself, she gave an apologetic smile and asked, "If he lived in such a way, wouldn't it be possible for him to have made enemies? People seeking revenge? Or even an internal complaint from the drinking?"

"I suppose," she replied slowly. Margaret could almost see the wheels turning in Mary's head. "But they say Mr. Thornton did have a reason to be angry with Leonards."

"Really?" Her heart sped up in dread, yet again afraid of the possibility of his guilt, however unlikely it seemed. "And what is that?" she asked, her voice small and tremulous.

"The grocer, who was at the train station last night, saw you there, miss. He's been telling his tale to anyone who has ears to listen! He says Leonards was bothering you, and that Mr. Thornton confronted him about it. The grocer told me himself that he suspects Mr. Thornton had some later quarrel with the man for harassing you, resulting in Leonards' death."

-----

Passing through the threshold of his study, John found the police inspector waiting by the window, his hands crossed behind his back and his gaze absorbed by the hubbub below. So occupied was the man, that he didn't even react to John's entrance.

Clearing his throat, John approached the police inspector, who turned toward him in response. Offering his hand in greeting, John recognized the man as Mason and made sure to include his name in the greeting. The man's pleasure at being remembered was all too evident upon his face. John hoped his familiarity would help keep the meeting casual and within his control, if at all possible. After all, if something was amiss, he wanted to keep a cool head.

As he moved toward the chair behind his desk, John gestured toward the seat across from him.

Mason, accepting the offer, settled into the chair and promptly moved on to his purpose for the call, his smile vanishing as quickly as it had appeared. "Mr. Thornton, I am here to speak with you about an open investigation."

Mason's eyes, abruptly sharp and unblinking, made John feel immediately uneasy, as though he were the stalked prey of a bloodthirsty predator. John found it ironic, especially considering the extreme differences between them in terms of physical size and social position. Shouldn't he, as magistrate, mill master, and gentleman by reputation, feel anything but intimidated by this police inspector?

Leaning back into his chair, Mason's gaze never faltered from John's. "There's been a man found dead today, and we have reason to believe you might be able to identify the body, specifically in connection with an incident at Outwood Station."

More shocking than the news of a dead man was the allusion to last night's events. His mind instantly went to a place where he didn't want it to go – Frederick. Was he...dead? His palms began to sweat, and he struggled to keep his composure intact under the strain of this most unpleasant prospect. Margaret would be so devastated if anything had happened to her brother!

Exuding a calm facade, despite the turmoil wreaking havoc within, he rubbed his chin contemplatively. "I see."

John tapped his fingers on his thigh, watching Mason through narrowed eyes, wondering at the palpable wariness radiating between them. In the long, drawn-out silence, he couldn't shake feeling that this visit was about much more than identifying a man. Something was very wrong.

"I will need you to come with me to the morgue before proceeding with questioning." Rising from his chair with a practiced aloofness, he asked, "Shall we be on our way?"

Remaining firmly seated in his chair, John let out a harsh breath. "I do not understand. Am I being questioned formally?"

Averting his eyes momentarily to the mill yard on the other side of the window, Mason replied with a resolute, "Yes sir," his hands once again firmly behind his back, his posture rigid. "It is necessary."

Raking his fingers through his hair angrily, John asked, "On what grounds?"

Turning, the predator's gleaming eyes pierced John with a vengeance, his prey finally cornered. "Suspicion of murder, sir."


**Okay, let me just say this chapter was a very very difficult one for me to write. I admit I am not yet adept at forming difficult plot thickening devices, but I did try my absolute best to make all these rumors and assumptions kick some major John and Margaret butt this chapter. I hope I did at least an ok job.

Please let me know your thoughts - it feeds my writing monster!**

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