The Miracles of Sister Modwenna:
The Case of the Duke Street Pickpocket
By David Broome
Unlike his fellow pedestrians, when William Ross heard this cry from behind him, he turned to help.
Most of the other early morning shoppers on Burton's Duke Street simply stepped aside to let the small boy run past, fearful lest they became involved in an unseemly incident themselves. Not Ross though, who stepped into the centre of the now parted crowds and attempted to halt the urchin’s escape.
He was faced by a small, sharp-nosed, flat-browed boy of around nine years of age, but with a mean, narrow face and an air about him that smacked of someone much older. He wore a short, loose jacket which flapped behind him as he ran toward Ross, with the cuffs turned back halfway up his arms, to keep his hands — one of which clutched a purse — out of his sleeves.
Ross tried to predict which way the rascal was going to run and head him off, and thought he had him until at the last minute the boy feinted left, and as Ross stepped that way, he darted right and was away, leaving the blacksmith clutching at thin air.
Hot on the boy’s heels was a young, professional-looking man of about Ross’ age, obviously the pickpocket’s victim, who called out as he approached.
“Ha, you almost had him then. Quick, let’s get after the little swine!”
They both gave chase, running along the quickly-emptying street that the urchin left in his wake.
They kept sight of him as he traversed Cross Street, but shortly after that, he disappeared from view as an old man pushing a handcart appeared from a side alley.
As Ross and his new companion reached the entrance to the alley, the old man pointed a shaky arm down the passageway and said in a wheezy voice: “He went that way, gentlemen.”
The duo turned into the alley and followed it to the end, where it split two ways, left and right. Without speaking, Ross jerked his thumb in the direction of the left passage, and his partner nodded before heading right himself.
Ross followed the alley as it bent to the left again, and then right, before coming to a dead, empty end outside the rear entrance to a building. The blacksmith returned to the junction, and met his new friend coming the other way with a puzzled expression on his face.
“Anything?” said Ross, breathlessly.
“Nothing. Dead end, nothing but a few piles of rubbish.”
“Not even that for me, alas, my way just led to a dead end and a padlocked door — and there’s nowhere in this section of the alley he could have hidden.”
“Where the deuce did he go then?”
“Beats me, it’s a mystery. I should contact the police.”
“I might have a better idea.”
Sister Modwenna had just finished sewing a new prayer cushion for the church when she heard someone calling her name. She put her work on a pile of completed cushions and stood up before walking towards the entrance of St Modwen's Church.
She met Ross and another man in the nave. Both were out of breath, and so she motioned them to sit down at one of the pews and tell their story in their own time.
The blacksmith recovered first. “Sister Modwenna,” he said, “forgive me for intruding, but we were close by when the crime was committed, and I wanted to come and get you immediately so that you can investigate the scene before any evidence disappears like the little scallywag himself did.”
“Mr Ross, you are a hasty fellow. Do calm down and tell me your story from the beginning.”
Ross was about to begin again, but the second gentleman interrupted with a patient smile.
“Sister, perhaps I should take up the tale," he said. "First, allow me to introduce myself. I am Lionel Carrick, a solicitor in this area. I was walking towards the Magistrates’ Court when I happened to reach inside my jacket to check the time on my pocketwatch. It was lucky I did, for otherwise I would not have noticed the young fingersmith who was attempting to relieve me of my coinpurse.
“Unfortunately, despite me catching him in the act, I was unable to prevent him making off with my money, whereupon I gave chase, ably assisted by your friend here.”
Ross took up the tale. “We chased him into an alley, but he had vanished — into the underworld presumably — by the time we got there. We made a thorough examination of the area, but could find no trace.”
“Mr Ross told me of the wonderful detective work you had done recently, and suggested that you might be able to find some evidence which we could not,” concluded Carrick.
“It certainly seems a curious case,” said Modwenna, settling back in her pew.
Ross was looking impatient. “Sister, do you not wish to examine the alley?”
Modwenna smiled patiently. “If it pleases you, Mr Ross, we can talk as we walk back to the scene of the crime, although I do my best thinking in church.”
As the nun asked a few more questions about the incident, the trio made their way out of the church and walked the short distance back to the High Street, where Ross and Carrick showed Modwenna the alley where the pickpocket had vanished.
“I thought perhaps he had gone through this door,” said Ross as they came to the end of the left-hand passage which he had investigated, “but it was locked when I got here. We could find out which building it leads into and see if they had opened it a few minutes ago?”
Modwenna nodded indulgently. “Perhaps you and Mr Carrick could look into that while I finish my investigation of this area?”
“You may have to take on this part of the adventure by yourself my good man,” said Carrick with a shake of his head. “I am already late for court, and as much as I want to see this lad brought to justice, there are more criminals waiting for me up the road. Pray, take my card and keep me informed of your progress.”
Modwenna and Ross bade the solicitor farewell and then split up themselves, Modwenna beginning to search the ground around the entrance to the alley, while Ross made his way along the street. The first two shops he entered had no back way out, but the third, a public house, admitted that the door did belong to them, but insisted that it had not been opened that morning. Ross made a couple of notes in a notebook he had begun carrying with him, and then returned to Sister Modwenna.
“I believe I may have made a breakthrough,” he said.
“Really?” said Modwenna. “Do illuminate me.”
“The door at the end of the alley belongs to a public house, and although they claim not to have opened it today, I happened to notice the name above the door of the establishment.”
“Mr JM Carrick. Surely this must be the brother, or possibly father of our new friend?”
“I would say that is a distinct possibility,” admitted Modwenna, and Ross beamed with pride. “I have work to do here on another case," she added, "why don’t you continue your line of enquiry and we can meet back here in say, an hour?”
Ross nodded and set off in the direction of the railway station, his own course of action firm in his mind. On his way, he pulled the card from his pocket, upon which the home address of Lionel Carrick was printed. It was an address on Mosley Street, a road which ran parallel to the train tracks, and after a brisk walk, Ross arrived outside the address in question.
His knock upon the door was answered by an elderly maid who, upon request, showed him into the drawing room of the house, where a slim, dark-haired young woman was seated reading a letter.
“Do excuse my intrusion, madam. I was with your husband this morning when he was the unfortunate victim of a local pickpocket, and my colleague and I are investigating the incident.”
“Really? You do not look as though you are from the police though?”
“Indeed I am not, we act more as private investigators if you will, although not for money. As your husband is not here, perhaps I could speak briefly to you?”
“I cannot see how I could help.”
“Well, it is possible that the crime committed against Mr Carrick was not a random act — does he have any enemies for instance?"
“No, none at all."
“Hmmm. What about relatives who might bear him ill will — a brother, perchance?”
“He does have a brother, Jared is his name, but they have not spoken for five years.”
“Indeed? Might I ask why?”
“When their father died, there was a disagreement about the inheritance, the large part of which went to my husband. Jared was a bad sort, and his father all but cut him off.”
“Very interesting. Well, I will not take up any more of your time, Mrs Carrick. Be assured my colleague and I will do our best to bring the miscreant to justice.”
He bade farewell to his host and returned to Duke Street, where he found that Sergeant Harris of the Burton constabulary had arrived, along with two officers, and was speaking with Sister Modwenna.
“Oho, I see the police are here already,” said Ross as he approached, “that should save some time.”
“For what, pray?” asked the nun.
“For arresting Jared Carrick, of course.”
“And who’s he when he’s at home?” asked Harris, his bushy eyebrows knotting in confusion. “I thought I was ‘ere to pinch old Bill McEwan?”
“Who?” said Ross, his look of satisfaction also turning to puzzlement.
“It appears there have been two separate outcomes to this investigation,” said Modwenna. “Pray, tell us what you discovered, Mr Ross.”
“That Lionel Carrick has a brother called Jared, with whom he fell out some five years ago over money, and who now owns the very pub into which our pickpocket escaped. I would say that what happened was that Jared Carrick decided to try and reclaim some of the money that he thought should have been his, and so hired this fingersmith to purloin his brother’s purse, then let him in the back door of his alehouse in order to escape.”
“Indeed,” said Modwenna, thoughtfully. “I must say, Mr Ross, I am impressed with your detective work — there is logic in it.”
Ross beamed for the second time that morning. “Thank you, sister.”
“Unfortunately, in this case I fear you are to be proved completely incorrect, but it was worth you pursuing your enquiry for the experience.”
Despite the caveat, Ross was deflated at hearing this, and after an awkward silence, Sergeant Harris cleared his throat and patted the blacksmith on the arm.
“There, there lad, we all make mistakes — I should know that better than most. Perhaps you should explain your own conclusions, sister?”
“I would be happy to, and the sergeant is right Mr Ross, do not be disheartened by your unfruitful investigation. Why, two months ago you wouldn’t have even considered conducting such an analysis. Sergeant Harris and I have been doing this for many years, though merely in an amateur capacity in my case.”
Ross cheered up, and turned to Modwenna with a smile. “So, what did you discover while I was gone?”
“The first thing I should say is that I had something of an advantage over you, in that this was the seventh instance of pickpocketing which had come to my attention in the last fortnight, so I looked to see if there were any recurring themes.
“I examined the alley for footprints. Luckily, it is barely used, and the only fresh ones I found were too large to belong to the urchin. I reasoned from the style that they belonged to Mr Carrick and yourself.”
“What? How did the thief manage not to leave any footprints?” exclaimed the blacksmith.
“Ruling out anything exceptional, the only way he could have not left any footprints is if he did not go down the alley at all. Which brings us to the key point in this case — why did you pursue the boy down the alley in the first place?”
Ross thought, and then a light dawned in his eyes. “Because that fellow with the cart told us he had gone that way. So he was lying?”
“Not only was he lying, but I believe he had hidden the boy himself. Upon retracing your path to the alley, I managed to find the footprints of the boy. It was not easy, given how busy this street is, but I knew I was looking for small prints that would be heavy and yet far apart, given that he was running. When I found them I traced them back here, where they stopped.”
“And you think he hid inside the handcart?”
“I am sure of it. I must confess that I knew that in two of the other cases, I had found wheel-marks in the ground, but too small to be from a horse-drawn cart. When you mentioned that a gentleman — although that may be too delicate a term for Mr McEwan — with a handcart had given you directions, I began to suspect.”
“Who is this Bill McEwan then?”
“A villain of some repute,” said Sergeant Harris. “He’s done plenty of time for pick-pocketing and even armed robbery in the past, but we’ve not 'eard anything from him for some years now. It seems he has taken to hiring a small gang of street boys to do his dirty work for him, and he makes sure he’s nearby to 'ide them if needed, before taking a large share of their ill-gotten gains of course.”
“I see,” said Ross. “So what now? Wait for him to strike again?
“Or..or..we could set a trap for him, I could be the target and…”
“I must stop you there, sir,” interrupted the policeman. “I am sure you had a fine plan in place, but your colleague here has already led us to old Bill, haven’t you, sister?”
“Indeed. I am most sorry to disappoint you twice in quick succession, Mr Ross, but it appears that Mr McEwan is no criminal mastermind. He still lives at the same address he did 20 years ago, and the tracks from his handcart lead straight there.”
“Oh,” said Ross, feeling deflated again. “Have I been entirely useless in this case then?”
“Now then, let’s have none of that,” said Harris. “Why don’t you come along with us, and you can return Mr Carrick’s purse to him once we’ve lifted Bill?”
“I will, although a delivery boy is not quite what I’d had in mind.”
The policeman laughed. “We all have to start somewhere lad.”