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

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.