Sussex, England, 1929.
Mydworth is a sleepy English market town just 50 miles from London. But things are about to liven up there considerably, when young Sir Harry Mortimer returns home from his government posting in Cairo, with his unconventional American wife – Kat Reilly.
No sooner have the two arrived, when a jewel robbery occurs at Harry's aunt's home – Mydworth Manor – ending in one of the thieves being shot…and killed.
The local police are baffled by the case. But Harry and Kat have an edge in the hunt for the second thief: not only do they have certain useful "skills" they've both picked up in service of King, President and Country, they also have access to parts of English high society that your average bobby can't reach.
Because this Shot in the Dark…could have come from anywhere.
Thanks to Dylan at RedDog Press for inviting me to the tour for ‘A Shot In The Dark’ by Neil Richards and Matthew Costello. Here’s an extract from the book.
SUSSEX, ENGLAND, 1929.
LADY LAVINIA FITZHENRY turned the page of the novel she was reading – the latest from the American, Hemingway.
Always fun to read a book written by someone you’ve met – and even shared more than a few drinks with.
Sitting up in bed – Mydworth Manor so peaceful, the staff below all quiet – to read like this was such a pleasure.
She had brought a glass of port with her to bed – now sadly gone – and certainly it was late enough to think about turning the light off. Plenty to do in the busy days ahead, the house soon to be filled with weekend guests down from London.
Gossip. Music. Cocktails every evening before dinner. What fun!
She placed the book on her bedside table and put the light out. The bedroom now in darkness. She started to drift off, plans running through her mind.
She opened her eyes. Another sound: arattle. Not close, clearly somewhere down the wide hallway.
A sound that, well, perhaps a door or a window might make in response to a stiff breeze. Except this was a perfectly still night. Barely a breeze.
There it was again. The rattle louder.
Lavinia had never been one to sit and wait. Her response to fear throughout her entire life had remained exactly the same.
If you are afraid of something, you face it.
She put the light on, and, in one quick move, slid out from under the covers, slipped on her dressing gown, and headed out onto the landing.
LAVINIA STOOD motionless outside her bedroom, listening. The sounds seemed to have stopped.
Slowly she moved along the dark hallway, ears straining.
Past the grand staircase that led down to the entrance, where she saw the glow of the entryway light that was kept on all evening.
Warm, yellow, reassuring.
Down the hallway, until she came to the row of bedrooms that would house all her guests in just a few days.
She stopped. There was nothing but quiet.
Clearlytime to go back to bed, she thought. She turned.
There was a crack.
The sharp, brittle sound of something snappingin the room directly to her right.
Door shut. Secure – as it should be. These rooms were cleaned and prepared days ago.
Lavinia grabbed the doorknob – cold to the touch.
A twist, an audible click, the door opened – and she slowly entered the dark room.
With her eyes already adjusted to the dark, she didn’t need light to see that all was in order here.
The door that led into the dressing room stood half open. She felt – the barest sense of it – a cold draught coming from the room. A chill that shouldn’t be there.
Taking a deep breath, she grasped the door handle, pulled the door wide – and entered the room, to see… the window wide open.
She hurried over, ready to slam it shut, and end this late-night adventure. As she started to pull the window closed, her eyes were drawn for a second to the lawn as the moon momentarily found a gap in the clouds.
And she stopped. Frozen.
A figure was walking slowly away from the house towards the woods.
As she watched, the figure stopped. Turned.
Looked up at her…
Lavinia’s heart, at peace only seconds ago, now pounded. She backed away from the window, thoughts racing, searching for explanations that did not come.
She took a deep breath – and then stepped back to the window again, eyes straining.
But the figure had gone. As if it had never been there.
And now, as she peered into the darkness, a feeling of foreboding came over her.
A feeling that this weekend wasn’t going to bring fun at all…
AN ENGLISH HOMECOMING
KAT REILLY WATCHED her husband Harry shield his eyes from the morning sun as he studied the unloading process of the cross-channel ferry at Newhaven dock.
She knew him well enough to see that he was concerned.
The Pride of Sussexhad berthed an hour late, and, in the frenzied hurry to turn the ship around, Kat had already seen one precious cargo slip from its net and smash on the quayside.
While the steamer belched smoke into the sky, hordes of trucks, horses and carts, and hand-barrows swarmed around the dock-side, as passengers called instructions, and customs men tried to intervene.
So much for all the English politeness and decorum she’d been expecting to see on this, her first trip to Britain!
Though, in truth, Sir Harry Mortimer seemed as ever to typify the calm, unruffled English gentleman.
Tall, slim, his black hair longer than she’d ever known it, jacket slung nonchalantly over one shoulder, white cotton shirt sporting a dashing red tie.
All he needed was a tennis racquet to complete the look.
Or should that be – a cricket bat?
He turned back to her. “Hmm… just going to have a quick word with those chaps over there. Make sure they, er…”
She grinned at that. “And how will that go?”
Harry – with one of his great smiles – nodded.
“You think they won’t welcome my advice?”
“With open arms, I’m sure. That or clenched fists.”
“That ismy car they’re about to drop on the quay.”
“Ah, right. Sorry – old habits. I mean ourcar. Thing is, she may not be a Bugatti, but that Alvis is damned precious to me.”
“Good luck. Back in New York nobody argues with the longshoremen.”
“Well, I fancy we’re a tad more civilisedover here.”
“Civilised? Nine o’clock and I’m still waiting for that coffee you promised.”
“How about we stop in at a local hostelry en routeand celebrate my return to the motherland, and your first visit, with a slap-up breakfast?”
“Forgot you don’t quite speak the lingo yet. Means ‘large’. The works!”
He grinned, and she watched him walk over to a man on the dock who was dressed in blue overalls, cap on his head. From his stance, hands on hips, the man looked as if he might be the foreman – or whatever they called the guy in charge over here.
She saw Harry gesture to where, only now, their car – that beautiful and so-sleek example of English hardware – was starting to rise out of the ship’s hold, swinging perilously on ropes and chains.
The man in the cap nodded. No smiles there. But she guessed Harry was doing something she had seen him do so often. A few words here and there, and suddenly people wantedto help him.
Doubtful he introduced himself as ‘Sir’, though Kat wondered whether, with the dock workers, any of that ‘Lord and Lady’ stuff would carry much weight.
Harry walked back.
“All tickety-boo. Er, I mean, sorted. Just explained to him what was hiding under those tarps. Asked if they had ever handled a car like that.”
“Seems he rather prefers a Bentley. Rolls Royce at a push. Though he did say if I was offering him a drive, he’d happily take it for a spin.”
“Funny guy, hmm?”
“Salt of the earth.”
“Well, me – I’d just slip him some money.”
“Oh, see, there you go! That would neverwork here. An upstanding professional like that? He’d take it as a proper insult.”
Kat doubted that. Ten years posted to American embassies from Istanbul to Tokyo had taught her one thing – a handful of dollars never failed to make the world run more smoothly.
She turned to see the Alvis roadster steadily being lowered. Slowly, she was glad to note. And – now – nothing to be alarmed about.
She turned back to Harry, watching their steamer trunks being off-loaded, to be transported to Mydworth by truck.
Lorry – not truck, she thought.
And then they would drive to their new home. “New”, at least for Kat, but not to Harry. Mydworth: the small town where he grew up; a world he knew – but had been away from for so long.
Suddenly Harry wasn’t checking the unloading.
“Hmm,” he grunted.
“What?” she said, as he turned to look over to where the cars and taxis pulled up to pick up passengers.
Sitting there, a sleek sedan. Not a cab, but a very serious looking vehicle. And stepping out of it, now looking this way, a man crisply dressed in what looked like a chauffeur’s uniform.
“Something wrong?” she said to Harry.
“Don’t know. But I think we’re about to find out.”
The driver held a white envelope in his hands. He walked over directly – even urgently – to where she and Harry stood.
HARRY ALWAYS PRIDED himself on having extremely good instincts. They’d served him well back in ’18 in the skies over Belgium. Also, in his various postings abroad for the Foreign Office. A few times they’d helped him avoid getting hurt.
Once even killed.
His every instinct told him that the envelope the man carried was unlikely to be good news.
“Sir Harry Mortimer?”
Less a question than a confirmation.
Harry gave a quick nod back. He felt Kat looking at this scene as well.
He guessed she had to be thinking: Well, what is this about?
The chauffeur presented the envelope to Harry. “Urgent from Whitehall, sir. I’m to wait.”
Harry took the envelope, giving Kat a half grin.
“Wait? For what?”
He opened the tucked but unsealed envelope and removed a single piece of paper.
He recognised the crest on the paper, the address.
The message pithily brief, but also direct.
“Harry… what is it?”
A bit of alarm in her voice there, he noted. As they had grown closer to docking at Newhaven, Harry had reassured her about their new life in his homeland.
“No more running around for me,”he’d said. “Nice quiet office job in town, driving a desk a couple of days a week, lunch at the club, home by five, no harum-scarum, hmm?”
To which she had said:“Doubt that.”
He took a deep breath, even as he started to wonder if there was any getting around what this letter wanted him to do.
No solution appeared as he turned to face Kat directly.
KAT COULD SEE from Harry’s eyes that he wasn’t happy. Took only seconds to read the words in the letter, but – whatever the message – her husband… not pleased.
“Urgent meeting. Bit of a flap on, and it seems they want me to attend.”
“Really? When?” she asked. Though – with the chauffeur and limo standing by – she could figure out the answer to that one.
“Right now, apparently,” he waved the offending letter. “Uses the word ‘crisis’ here. Chaps in the office usually show some restraint when referring to such things, so…”
She glanced back just as their Alvis touched down on the dock. Two men began removing the heavy tarps that had been used to protect it during its journey. A hint of the car’s racing green colour caught the sunlight.
“We’re supposedto drive to our new house together, yes? Trucks bringing everything else right behind us.”
“I am still technically, um – you know – a servant of His Majesty’s Government.”
“Yes, and due to report in a few weeks, and even then, not a full-time position.”
Harry’s eyes shifted right. His beleaguered look made Kat almost withdraw her protest.
“Tell this charming man here that you and I have things to do. You can see them tomorrow.”
And then Harry did something that always cut through the slightest disagreement they had.
He took a step towards her. Bit of a smile back, not full on, but so warm – just like the night they met at that New Year’s Eve reception in the British Embassy in Cairo.
He put a hand on her shoulder.
And for that moment, there was just the two of them on that dock alone.
“I know. But if it was you? Back in New York? Some chap from the State Department?” He paused, hand still on her shoulder – and Kat knew how this had to play out. “What would you do? What couldyou do?”
And so slowly – only now rewarding him with a smile of her own – she patted his hand on her shoulder.
“Harry. It’s okay. I understand. Duty calls.”
“Exactly. King and country. Ours not to reason why. And don’t worry, we’ll take this fellow’s car into town, and I’ll get Alfie to drive us back here as soon as the meeting is done with.”
Alfie– someone else from Harry’s life she hadn’t met yet. His – what did they call them? – “batman” during the war.
Someone who, Harry said, was fiercely loyal, and would do absolutely anything for him, even arranging things for what was going to be their London pied-à-terre.
“Few hours at the most, then straight back here. Pick up ourcar, and off we go, crisis over with a bit of luck.”
That was the plan offered by Harry. But Kat knew it never was her style to sit around waiting, killing time.
Not when there were things to be done.
“No,” she said, warm smile still on her face. “I have another idea.”
Harry’s turn to look surprised.
And Kat nodded.