As if by Magic

Table of Contents

The Jack Haldean Mystery Series

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Author's Note

The Jack Haldean Mystery Series

A FÊTE WORSE THAN DEATH

MAD ABOUT THE BOY

AS IF BY MAGIC

A HUNDRED THOUSAND DRAGONS

OFF THE RECORD

TROUBLE BREWING

AS IF BY MAGIC
A Jack Haldean Murder Mystery
Dolores Gordon-Smith

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

       

First published in the UK by Constable,

an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd 2009

First US edition published by SohoConstable,

an imprint of Soho Press, 2009

eBook edition first published in 2012 by Severn House Digital an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited

Copyright © Dolores Gordon-Smith 2009

The right of Dolores Gordon-Smith to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

ISBN-13: 978-1-4483-0064-8 (epub)

Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

This ebook produced by

Palimpsest Book Production Limited,

Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.

For my sister, Barbara,
with love

Chapter One

London, October 1923

George Lassiter huddled against the entrance of Hyde Park Corner tube station, sheltering from the icy sting of the sleet-filled rain. Yesterday he had been well dressed in a top hat, evening clothes and thin patent leather shoes but now, although he still wore the same clothes, his hat was shapeless with rain, his shoes were like sodden cardboard and his white waistcoat and tail coat defenceless against the biting cold.

He looked to where taxis, cars and buses clogged Knightsbridge in a dark, noisy river. Their headlights caught the sleet-flecked crowds, secure in winter overcoats, gloves and hats. Umbrellas sprang up like black mushrooms, cocooning their owners in impenetrable, urgent circles. People: hundreds and hundreds of people. In such numbers they weren't really people any more. He wanted to reach out, to say, ‘Stop!' He wanted someone in this barricaded, jostling mass of inhumanity to pause, to look, to speak, but no one spared him a glance.

His hands were numb and raw. He shielded them under his arms and leaned his head against the cold wet tiles of the tube station. He closed his eyes, hoping, like a gambler about to make a final, desperate throw, for a miracle. Perhaps when he opened his eyes there would be someone – anyone – who could help. The traffic ground on, the newspaper seller shouted, the rain lanced down. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. Nothing.

He turned up his collar and trudged away from the crowds pouring down the steps to the underground. They were heading for Acton and Ealing, Holland Park and home. They would have firesides and food, and perhaps a welcoming smile and the thump of a sleepy dog's tail. And as for him? Nothing. He loathed the rain and the bricks and the stones and the soot and the careless, unconscious cruelty of all who hurried through this man-made desert of London. His head ached and he had to lean against a shop window before he could walk on. His legs felt like rubber and the pavement swam dizzily in front of him. He stumbled across the road to the great dark emptiness of Hyde Park. Here at least were grass and trees and space, but the wind-whipped rain was even fiercer than it had been in the streets.

He walked on. George didn't know where he was and didn't care. He seemed to have been wandering for hours. He had spent last night in Euston station where, although uncomfortable, he'd been under cover. He'd been a fool to leave the entrance to the underground. He'd felt imprisoned by the crowds but at least the station had given some sort of shelter.

His head was really hurting now and he suspected an attack of malaria was in the offing. He left the park behind him and crossed a wide, traffic-choked road into a maze of quiet streets where flat-chested, elegant and forbidding houses ran in endless lines, caged in by iron railings. If they weren't caged in, thought George, all the houses might escape. He held on to the railings and laughed. The sound of his laugh shocked him. Dear God, if he really did go down with malaria now there would be no hope at all. He fought down the sick taste of panic. Sheer willpower made him take a deep breath, let go of the railings and straighten up. He needed to think of something else other than how he felt. He forced himself to look at his surroundings properly.

For some reason his spirits lifted. Although he was drenched to the skin and bitterly cold, the rain had subsided into ill-natured squalls and the empty streets glistening under the lamplight were oddly appealing. Sort of . . .
cosy,
he thought. It was like a play-town on a nursery carpet. He looked at his hand and his hand seemed large enough to cover these toy-town houses and pick them up, one by one. He'd had a toy zoo and a gleaming ribbon of brass that encircled the nursery with an exciting noisy little train that chugged along with real steam. He could move the houses so they –

He stopped himself abruptly, alarmed. What the devil was happening to him? His mind was wandering and everything was too small, as if he had stepped into a shrunken world. His legs and neck were sore. Malaria, thought George again, with a touch of panic. He had to find somewhere to rest soon. Even a shop doorway or a park bench would have done but there were no shops and the park was far behind.

With clumsy, hesitant steps he walked on. His legs were stiff and it hurt to move. He half leaned, half fell against a set of railings and looked through them down to where light streamed from a window into the area of the house. He must be looking into someone's kitchen. There was a pair of hands – he could only see the hands – washing up, making the water dance in the bowl. The hands shook themselves and withdrew from sight. It was such a domestic scene that his eyes pricked with tears and he drew the back of his hand across them. These spear-railed houses were
homes
and people could be happy in them. He'd never thought of anyone actually having a home in London before. London was a dirty, complicated, alien sprawl, not a collection of homes. It must be strange to know one of these endlessly duplicated Portland stone boxes as home and yet, clinging to the railings and gazing down on to that wedge of light on the wet stone flags below, he thought he could find his way about inside one of these boxes. Everything had seemed too small and now everything seemed too big. It would be like a fairy story or a folk tale. There would be giant rooms populated by giants . . . His head swam and he tightened his grip on the railings.

The sound of voices and a basement door being shut in the yard of the next house made him look up. Three women, servants at a guess, came up the steps and on to the pavement. One, a plump, comfortable-looking sort, turned to her companion and made a face. ‘I hope this is worth it, Elsie. I'd just as soon stay in my nice warm kitchen on a night like this.' Elsie laughed and replied, her words lost in a gust of wind. To his relief they went down the street, away from where he was holding on to the railings. He could hardly feel his hands any more. He waited until the echoes of their feet had died away before moving.

George walked slowly to the steps where the women had come from. A soft light flickered through the window. There would be a fire in there. Warmth. The rain slashed down again and he shivered. He wanted to be inside that house. A huge desire rose in him. It wasn't any house, it was this house which drew him. There was something about it which touched a shy, lost place deep inside. He was so very cold and the light looked so inviting . . . but it was someone else's house and that, to George, was a mountainous barrier.

If the cook had banked up the fire properly or made sure the damper was close down, he would have walked on. As it was, he stood gazing at the light as if it were a glimpse of Paradise. There was something about the very bricks and mortar of this place which called to him. The street was totally deserted. Opening the iron gate, he went down the steps as quietly as he could, listening for any noise. From far away he could hear the measured tread of a policeman's feet and the sound made him panic. A policeman would stop him. He tried the handle but it was locked, of course. Minutes before, George would have been shocked at the thought of breaking into a stranger's house. Now it was unthinkable that he couldn't get in. As the steps grew closer he even considered smashing the window, then suddenly smiled – his first smile for many hours – and felt under the mat. Seconds later he was turning the key in the door.

Inside the kitchen and with his back to the door he heard the steps pass by on the street above. Nerves on edge he approached the fire warily, then slumped to his knees on the hearthrug, wincing as the heat stung his frozen body. He sat in front of the black-leaded range, blissfully content. It must have been over five minutes later before he could think of anything but the fire, and with time came caution. He could almost imagine his ears had pricked like a dog's as he strained to hear any sound from the rest of the house. None came. Unconsciously he relaxed and, greatly daring, took the poker, stirred up the coals and raised the damper.

The fire blazed, sending light around the room. On the kitchen table was a plate of sandwiches, covered by a glass bowl. He hadn't eaten since yesterday . . . As he finished the last of the sandwiches, he guiltily realized he had probably stolen the servants' supper. He felt bad about that, remembering that plump, agreeable woman and her companions, but now the taste of food had reminded him how thirsty he was. A latched plank door stood to one side of the room. The ladder? He opened the catch of the door and pulled it back as quietly as he could. On a marble slab, surrounded by the packets and boxes that lined the shelves, were two tin jugs full of milk. He couldn't see a cup so drank straight from the jug – another thing that until half an hour or so ago would have been unthinkable.

George slipped back into the kitchen. His clothes had started to steam in the heat, he could feel his hands and feet properly once more, and the savage desire for food and drink had been quelled. What he now wanted more than anything in the world was a cigarette. After the necessities, luxury, he thought, and realized, with a certain amount of irony, that the craving for the one was quite as great as the craving for the other. He walked round the kitchen with a boldness which would have horrified him earlier and turned up a packet of Players, a box of matches and a tin ashtray beside the tea caddy. If anything he was now too warm, so he retreated into a corner chair behind the kitchen table and lit the cigarette, sucking in the smoke gratefully. He would have his cigarette and go. Of course he must go. The rain pattered against the window and he shuddered. He couldn't go yet. The servants were out. Surely he was safe for another hour at least? It had been many hours since he'd slept and he'd been walking all day and the kitchen was so blissfully warm. He'd just finish this cigarette . . .

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