The Key to Deceit (Electra McDonnell #2) - Ashley Weaver

CHAPTER ONE

LONDON

31 AUGUST 1940

It’s often a man’s mouth that breaks his nose, my uncle Mick was fond of saying, and the bloke in front of me was doing his best to test the theory. His mouth was just about thirty seconds from earning him a fist to the conk.

“War or no war,” he was saying, “I don’t want a woman mucking things up.”

I was trying hard to keep my temper down. After all, I was here on behalf of my uncle, a well-respected locksmith. He was out of town on another job, and he wouldn’t be best pleased to return home and find that I’d walloped a paying customer. Though, in my defense, this fellow didn’t seem at all likely to pay.

Things had seemed simple enough when I took the telephone call that morning. It was an unchallenging task—changing a few locks on the doors at Atkinson’s Automobile Garage—and with the war on, we needed all the work we could get. I’d accepted the job, but when I’d turned up, tool kit in hand, Atkinson, the burly bounder in stained coveralls standing before me, had bridled at leaving his precious locks in the hands of a woman. We’d been going round in circles for ten minutes at this point, and my patience was wearing thin.

“Do you want these locks changed or don’t you?” I asked tersely.

“Not by a bit of skirt, love,” he said, gesturing toward the door to the office and the storage room that adjoined it. “I’ve got confidential records and expensive, hard-to-get parts in there that need to be kept safe. I can’t take a chance on an improperly installed lock.”

He was already taking a chance; the locks on both the office door and the storage room were flimsy pin-tumbler locks. For a moment I allowed myself the luxury of imagining returning to this garage in the dead of night. It wouldn’t take more than a pick, a tension tool, and thirty seconds to open these doors. I could be in and out in a few minutes with his precious hard-to-get parts …

“You won’t find better locksmiths in London than the McDonnells,” I said, repressing my criminal instincts. Though, to tell the truth, a perfectly mediocre locksmith could have done just as well. It would be a simple task to remove the old locks and replace them with more secure Yale locks. I could have had a good start on the job by now if he hadn’t been giving me a lot of poppycock.

Atkinson crossed his brawny arms over his chest. “I asked for Mick McDonnell, and I’ll have Mick McDonnell or take my business elsewhere.”

A lesser locksmith, a locksmith who didn’t have stubborn McDonnell blood coursing through the veins, might have given up at this point. But if Uncle Mick had taught me anything it was that sometimes a fist was the answer, but, more often than not, charm, wits, and skill worked better.

I smoothed my expression and made my voice calm and reasonable. “Well, you’ve got Ellie McDonnell, and I’m perfectly capable of doing this job. I know as much about locks as you do about that Phantom.” I nodded toward the Rolls-Royce parked inside one of the open garage doors.

He glanced over his shoulder. “So you think you know cars, then, too, do you?”

“A bit.” My cousin Colm had always tinkered with machines growing up. He was a mechanic for the RAF now, but, in the years before the war, many was the hour I’d sat by his side as he mended and rebuilt various engines. I’d absorbed quite a bit of information in those sessions.

Atkinson snorted, and my ire rose once again.

I couldn’t stop myself from giving him a haughty glare. “Contrary to what you believe, it is possible for women to know about things outside of the kitchen.”

His eyes narrowed at my sarcasm. “Right. Tell you what, girlie. If you can name me even one part inside that engine, I’ll let you change my locks.”

“Do I have your word on that?”

“Sure,” he said with a smirk, clearly not considering it much of a risk.

I looked at the car, recalling the things Colm had gone on about as he’d discussed the mechanics of luxury cars we’d never be able to afford.

“It’s a Phantom III?” I asked.

I saw the surprise flash across his face before he covered it and gave a short nod. “A ’thirty-eight.”

Luckily for me, the Phantom III was one of the cars Colm had talked about endlessly. It was that recognition that