A Peculiar Combination (Electra McDonnell #1) by Ashley Weaver



CHAPTER ONE


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.