The first in the new Electra McDonnell series from Edgar-nominated author Ashley Weaver, set in England during World War II, is a delightful mystery filled with spies, murder, romance, and the author's signature wit …
Release date: May 11, 2021
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 288
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A Peculiar Combination
LONDON AUGUST 1940
We were going to get caught.
The alarming idea buzzed around inside my head like the menacing drone of an approaching Luftwaffe bomber, even as I tried to banish it. I had never had this sensation in the middle of a job before, and it was disquieting to say the least. It was unlucky to think such things, especially at moments like these. To lose concentration was the first step in making mistakes. And we couldn’t afford to make mistakes.
I drew in a deep, steadying breath of the cool night air, freshened by a light rain earlier in the day, and glanced again down the darkened street. There was no one in sight. The whole neighborhood was quiet.
That’s the way most streets were now, with the blackouts. Our brave boys of the RAF had valiantly defended the homeland in dogfights high above the Channel for the past month, but Cardiff and Plymouth had already been hit, and there was little doubt in the minds of most Londoners that it was only a matter of time before the bombs started dropping here. And so we covered our windows, blotting out any light that might make us a target from the night sky, and waited.
The cloak of darkness made things a lot easier for people like Uncle Mick and me, those whose pursuits were of the less noble variety. Of course, it also made it more difficult to know which houses were empty and which were full of people trying to go on about their normal lives behind shades that protected them, at least in theory, from the terrors of enemy aircraft.
But there was no question about our target. The house was deserted; I was quite sure of that. Even though our source had told us the occupants were away, we had been watching it for several days now to make certain. There hadn’t been any sign of activity, not even of a housekeeper or charwoman.
A sudden whisper of movement behind me made me tense, the premonition of a moment before flashing through my mind. Standing absolutely still, I turned my head slowly toward the sound, my eyes searching the shadows for its source. For a moment there was nothing, just an eerie quiet. Then a cat emerged from a nearby bush and pranced past me without a glance as I let out a breath. I was needlessly on edge; it was time to pull myself together. Refocusing my thoughts, I turned my attention back to the house.
It sat dark and silent, just as it had for the past several nights. I had raised the concern that the occupants might have left the country. A lot of people—at least among those who could afford it—were leaving before the Nazis arrived, and if the residents of this house had gone to greener pastures, they would surely have taken their valuables with them.
Uncle Mick, however, had assured me that this wasn’t the case. “My information’s sound, Ellie girl. There’s goods in the safe.”
Uncle Mick’s informants were seldom wrong, and so we had gone ahead with our plans. So far, everything was proceeding just as we had hoped. But still I felt that sense of unease, like the drip of cold rain down the back of my neck.
I stared out into the darkness and wondered if it was too late to call it off. Uncle Mick should be around the corner. Perhaps, if I were to go to him before we got started, I could convince him that we should try again tomorrow night.
But no. That was silly. We’d been planning for a week, and I knew time was of the essence. It was possible that the residents of this house would be gone for another night or even a fortnight, but it was just as likely they might return tomorrow and all our work would have been in vain.
Besides, we needed money, the sooner the better. Uncle Mick’s business had been slow since the war started. We were as patriotic as the next family, and, knowing it wasn’t exactly cricket to rob houses in wartime, we’d held off as long as possible. But now our coffers, such as they were, were low. It was time to put scruples aside. Desperate times and all that.
So we’d ventured out onto streets patrolled by watchful bobbies and sharp-eyed air-raid wardens. Uncle Mick had allowed me in on this riskier job, one he would normally have done with my cousins, Colm and Toby. That’s the way it was now, with the men away fighting. Women stepping up to do the jobs we’d been telling them we were capable of all along.
Not that Uncle Mick doubted my capabilities. He had never done that. It was just that his urge to protect me was strong. With the boys gone, however, the time for that was past.
I took another look at the house. It was a sturdy Georgian brick residence with tidy hedges and an iron fence surrounding the property, gates at the front and back. It was just the kind of place I’d hoped to live in one day when I was young and romantic minded. Now it didn’t appeal to me. I thought it seemed too formal, too stuffy somehow, with its rooms full of antiques and bric-a-brac.
It wasn’t a mansion. We didn’t go in for the biggest houses, the kind with live-in household staff. Instead, we slipped in and out with no one the wiser until they opened their safe again and discovered things were missing.
We were very good at what we did, and we had always been successful. That was what made the uneasy feeling I had tonight all the more distracting.
I glanced at my watch, the luminous dial showing me that it was nearly midnight. Uncle Mick would be in place. There was no more time for hesitation.
With one last glance up and down the street, I walked casually along the pavement until I reached the edge of the gate. The iron door was slightly ajar, which meant Uncle Mick was ahead of me. I slipped through it and followed the pathway that ran along the side of the house, shielded by the hedges, to the side entrance.
Ahead of me, barely discernible in the darkness, I saw a shadow at the doorway and heard the faint sounds of a lock beneath metal instruments. Uncle Mick, when in a law-abiding frame of mind, was a locksmith, and he’d never met a lock that didn’t bend to his will.
“Ah, there you are, my girl,” he said as I approached. “Right on time.”
There was a click as the lock yielded to the hand of a master, and the door opened inward.
Uncle Mick stood silently in the doorway for a moment, listening for any sounds within the house. Then he beckoned me forward and we went inside.
“You didn’t see anyone?” he asked, as he switched on his torch. That was another benefit of the blackout shades. Normally, we would have to stand inside a house waiting for our eyes to adjust to a darker shade of dark.
“No,” I replied. “Though something feels … a bit off.”
“It’s the unnatural dark,” he said. “The whole city feels like a tomb.”
“Yes,” I agreed, though I didn’t think that was what was bothering me.
He grinned. “All the better for us, though, eh, Ellie?”
“I suppose so.”
I switched on my own torch and followed him as he led the way from the entry through the tidy kitchen and into the dining room. There we paused for a moment, and I shined my torch across the heavy ornamental furniture, the velvet curtains, the paintings that hung on the walls, and the quality rug upon the gleaming wooden floor.
My torchlight lingered on the rug, and then I stopped. There was a footprint against the pattern, a man’s shoe by the size of it. Who had tracked mud into the house? It seemed odd that it hadn’t been cleaned. Then again, a lot of things weren’t the same during the war as they had been before.
I put the thought away. I had more important matters to consider at the moment. My concentration was something I prided myself on. I had always been able to focus on a thing and give it my sole attention. What was it about tonight that had set me so on edge? Perhaps I was just missing Colm and Toby. Nothing had seemed the same since they went off to war.
My light flickered across a sideboard that sat loaded with crystal and china. The resident had taken no precautions against bombing, and I had the sudden image of shards of glass exploding across the room like a rain shower.
Our own china, aside from a few everyday pieces, had been packed away with most of the other fragile items we owned in the coal cellar for safekeeping.
Glancing again at the sideboard, I noticed a pair of candlesticks I was certain were silver, but that was not what we had come for.
Never get distracted by less than your target, Uncle Mick had always told me. So I didn’t give the silver a second thought as I followed him silently through the room and into the foyer, where we began to make our way up the staircase.
Uncle Mick had talked to a woman who had once worked in the house and had gotten a fairly good idea of what the layout was. He was good at that sort of thing, finding sources and gathering information in an offhanded way that didn’t arouse suspicion.
At the top of the stairs, we moved unerringly toward a room at the end of the hall.
The light from our torches played over the walls as we went, casting strange shadows against several paintings, none of them noteworthy, hung upon the dark green silk paper.
We reached the end of the hall, and Uncle Mick opened the door to our right and entered the office. This room was decorated in the same style as the rest of the house, good-but-not-exceptional-quality furniture, mediocre art. There was a large desk and one wall was lined with bookshelves.
Uncle Mick scanned the wall behind the desk with his torch. There was a large painting hung there in an expensive gilt frame. It was just the sort of piece that might hide a safe. Cheap wall safes were somewhat typical in people of this class, people with property valuable enough to be locked away but not so grand as to be stored in a bank box.
We had it on good authority that there was jewelry in that safe. We were rather counting on it, in fact. I tried not to get my hopes up, reminding myself that, if we didn’t come across what we were after, there was always the dining room silver.
Uncle Mick turned to look at me. “Come see what you think.”
Holding my torch up with one hand, I reached out and touched the frame, testing it for any hint of movement. At first I felt nothing, but as I ran my fingers around the edge, I felt a little projection, almost like a knob of some sort. I pressed it, heard a slight click, and the painting swung back from the wall on hinges.
“That’s my girl,” Uncle Mick said.
I flashed my torchlight over the face of the safe that was set into the wall behind the painting.
I frowned. This wasn’t an inexpensive wall safe. It was a Milner, rather more heavy-duty and more of a challenge than the cheaper model I had been expecting.
Uncle Mick was apparently thinking the same thing, for he gave a low whistle. “Looks like they take their valuables seriously.”
This was said in a cheery tone. This more difficult lock might take him a bit longer, but Uncle Mick had always relished a challenge.
Copyright © 2021 by Ashley Weaver
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