Read Todd, Charles Online

Authors: A Matter of Justice

Todd, Charles



Charles Todd


HarperCollins e-books


In remembrance...

Samantha June 1995 to September 2007


Crystal November 1995 to March 2008


Who gave so much to those who loved them.


May 1920


Ronald Evering was in his study, watching a mechanical toy bank go through its motions, when the idea first came to him.

The bank had been a gift from a friend who knew he collected such things. It had been sent over from America, and with it in a small pouch were American pennies with which to feed the new acquisition, because they fit the coin slot better than the English penny.

A painted cast-iron figure of a fat man sat in a chair, his belly spreading his brown coat so that his yellow waistcoat showed, and one hand was stretched out to receive his bribe from political figures and ordinary citizens seeking his favor. His name was "Boss" Tweed, and he had controlled political patronage in New York City in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Through an alliance between Tammany Hall and the Democratic Party, graft had been his stock-in-trade. Now his image was encouraging children to be thrifty. A penny saved...

The note accompanying the gift had ended,
"Look on this as a swindler of sorts for the swindled, my dear Ronald, and take your revenge by filling his belly full of pennies, in time to recoup your pounds...."

He hadn't particularly cared for the tone of the note, and had burned it.

Still, the bank was a clever addition to his collection.

It had been a mistake to confide in anyone, and the only reason he'd done it was to vent his rage at his own impotence. Even then he hadn't told his friend the whole truth: that he'd invested those pounds in order to look murderers in the face, to see, if such a thing existed, what it was that made a man a killer. In the end all he'd achieved was to make himself known to two people who had no qualms about deliberately cheating him. The explanation was simple—they wanted no part of him, and losing his money was the simplest way to get rid of him without any fuss. He hadn't foreseen it, and it had become a personal affront.

He had sensed the subtle change in the air when he'd first given his name, and cursed himself for not using his mother's maiden name instead. But the damage was done, and he'd been afraid to let them see what he suspected.

Yet it had shown him—even though he couldn't prove it—that he'd been right about them. What he didn't know was what to do with that knowledge.

Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord...
But the Lord had been remarkably slow exacting it. If anything, these two men had prospered.

And he had had no experience of vengeance.

There was only his mother, crying in his father's arms, this quiet, unassuming woman fiercely demanding that whoever had killed her dear boy be punished. A ten-year-old, listening from the shadows of the stairs, shocked and heartbroken, had endured nightmares about that moment for years afterward. And it was his mother's prodding after his father's death that had sent him to Cape Town in 1911, to bring her dear boy home from his South African grave.

"Your father couldn't do it.
But you
must," she'd urged him time and again. "It's your duty to Timothy, to me, to the family. Bring him home, let him lie beside your father in the churchyard, where he belongs. Find a way, if you love me, and let me see him resting there before I die!"

Trying to shake off the memory, Evering took another penny from the pouch and placed it in Boss Tweed's outstretched hand.

Almost quicker than the eye could follow, the hand slid the penny into the waistcoat pocket as Boss Tweed's head moved to nod his thanks.

The man smiled. It was no wonder he preferred these toys to people. He had come home from Cape Town with his brother's body, after two years of forms and long hours in hot, dusty offices in search of the proper signatures. What he hadn't bargained for was the information he'd collected along the way. Information he had never told his mother, but which had been a burden on his soul ever since. Almost ten years now. Because, like Hamlet, he couldn't make up his mind what to do about what he knew.

Well, to be fair, not ten years of single-minded effort.

The Great War had begun the year after his return from South Africa, while he was still trying to discover what had become of those two men after they left the army. It wasn't his fault that he'd been stationed in India, far from home. But that had turned out to be a lucky break, for he discovered quite by accident where they were and what they were doing. In early 1918 he'd been shipped back to London suffering from the bloody flux, almost grateful for that because he was able at last to look into the information he'd come by in Poona.

Only he'd misjudged his quarries and made a fool of himself.

It wouldn't do to brood on events again. That way lay madness.

On the shelves behind him was an array of mechanical and clockwork toys, many of them for adults, like the golden bird that rose from an enameled snuffbox to sing like a nightingale.

Banks were a particularly fine subject for such mechanical marvels. A penny tip to the owner sent a performing dog through a hoop. In another example, a grinning bear disappeared down a tree stump as the hunter lifted his rifle to fire. Humor and clever design had gone into the creation of each toy. The shifting weight of the penny set the device concealed in the base into motion, making the action appear to be magical.

He had always found such devices fascinating, even after he'd worked out the mechanism that propelled them. His mind grasped the designer's plan very quickly, and sometimes he had bettered it in devices of his own. Skill calling to skill. He took quiet pride in that.

He reached for another penny to put into Boss Tweed's hand, thinking to himself that it would be equally as fascinating to trick human beings into doing whatever one wished, by placing not a coin in a slot but an idea in their minds.

He sat back, stunned at the thought.

Hadn't he gone to South Africa to please his mother? To earn the love she'd always lavished on his elder brother, hoping in some fashion that when he had accomplished what she asked of him, he'd be loved as much too? She had used him, as surely as if she had slipped a penny in the proper slot.

His mother had died six weeks after they had buried his brother in the churchyard, and it wasn't
name on her lips as she breathed her last—her final thoughts had been turned toward that glorious reunion in heaven with her dear boy.

It was over her corpse, lying in her coffin in the hall of this very house, that he'd poured out all he'd been told in South Africa. Wanting to hurt her as much as she had hurt him, but well aware that nothing he said could touch her now. Knowing himself for a coward, even as the words drained him.

And in the silence of the empty house, he could almost hear her voice, as clearly as if she spoke from the closed coffin, telling him to do his duty once more.

"Kill them, Ronald. See that they pay. Send them to hell, my boy, and I'll love you then."

Easy enough for her to say, but how did one go about finding one murderer, let alone a pair of them? And once found, how did one go about punishing them? Does one conceal a revolver in one's pocket and shoot the bastards there and then?

Both men were equally guilty—he had no reservations about that. One for the act itself, the other for never reporting it and seeing that justice was done.

He didn't want to hang for them or his mother or her dear boy. He had tried to persuade the Army to look into the matter, and they had turned a blind eye. They hadn't even initiated an inquiry, hadn't so much as taken down names. His only evidence was the word of an aging, drunken Boer who hated the English ten years later as much as he'd hated them during the fighting. And what was that worth, I ask you, the Army had said, against the word of two Englishmen?

And yet the Afrikaner, who had been left for dead by his comrades, had lain there wounded within sight and hearing of the train until he'd stopped bleeding and could crawl away. He had
the horror unfold. And it must be true—in God's name, how could he have made up such a monstrous tale? What he couldn't tell Evering was
it had been done, except that he had heard two men arguing over money. And Evering hadn't cared about that, only about the death of his brother.

In the hall, staring down at the coffin, Ronald Evering hadn't been able to shut out the voice of his mother even after swearing he would see that the devils paid.

For months afterward, it was as if she could see his ambivalence and cursed him for it.
Hadn't he loved his brother? Didn't he want revenge for what had been done to him?
Yes, but how? Dear God,

It was a vicious circle, and he'd gone round and round it, looking for a solution until he had learned to shut her out. Even when he'd tried to take a first step, it had been disastrous. He'd crept home with his tail between his legs, like a whipped dog.

Too bad he couldn't set into motion a little scene of his own, paying one figure a penny to scurry across the cast-iron stage to bury his woodsman's ax into another figure's skull while the wolf—himself— leered from behind painted cast-iron bushes.

It could be done in iron, he knew, given the right counterweights and the right penny. It would take less than a day to create a drawing.

Would it work with flesh-and-blood people as well as these mechanical devices?

No reason why it shouldn't. His mother was proof of that.

He sat back and reviewed everything he'd learned about the two men. Where was the penny, the chink in the armor they had built for themselves? What was the instinct or desire or fear that would send a human being headlong into action, without thinking about consequences? Like the mechanical hunter or the mechanical dog—once set in motion, the outcome was inevitable. Inescapable.

Surely he could work out a revenge that would in no way make
vulnerable, either to the police if he succeeded, or to retribution from those two men, if he failed. A cowardly wish, he was willing to admit that, but hadn't he already suffered enough on his brother's behalf? Perhaps afterward he could get on with his own life....

Engrossed by the idea, he sat there for some time, staring into the painted features of the New York man who had run Tammany Hall for years and grown fat on trickery and power, now reduced to a Victorian concept of thrift and good humor.

No one took
Boss Tweed seriously. A figure of fun, not a figure of fear. And perhaps that was the best trick of all. Those murderers had dismissed
Ronald Evering, as no danger to them, hadn't they? They'd even taken his money, as proof that he was harmless, no doubt laughing behind his back at how clever they'd been, making certain that whatever he might tell the world about them,
could claim he was no more than a disgruntled client.

He reached for pen and paper.

After half an hour spent putting together his design, weighing the balances and counterbalances, he rather thought it could be done.

Amazing how simple it was, really. He hadn't known he was capable of such a scheme.

His mother would have been horrified.




Twenty Years Earlier: The Boer Wa

The military train pulled out just after dawn, three carriages guarded by a company under Lieutenant Timothy Evering. It was carrying weapons and ammunition forward, and bringing wounded back. The Boers were masters at ambush, and three trains had been stopped on this line in the past month alone. Spread out through the carriages, his men were silent for the most part, their nerves on edge as they watched for the danger that was invisible somewhere out there in the bush.

Evering, hunkered by the window in the last carriage, was all too aware that he had been given green men, men who hadn't faced a baptism of fire. He didn't want to think about how they would respond if the Dutchmen attacked. If they didn't shoot themselves in the foot in their nervousness, it would be a miracle. And he'd already thanked God for Sergeant Bellman, an old hand at war and steady as a rock.

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