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Authors: David Ashton

Trick of the Light

BOOK: Trick of the Light
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A Trick of the Light

‘McLevy is a sort of Victorian Morse with a heart’

Financial Times

‘McLevy is one of the great psychological creations, and Ashton is the direct heir to Robert Louis Stevenson’ Brian Cox, star of the BBC Radio 4 McLevy plays

‘You can easily imagine the bustling life of a major port, and the stories are alive with a most amazing array of characters’

BBC Radio 4

‘David Ashton, like Robert Louis Stevenson or Ian Rankin, is inspired by the beauty-and-beast nature of Edinburgh. His interpretation of James McLevy is worthy of the original man’

Sherlock Holmes Society

‘Ashton’s McLevy … is a man obsessed with meting out justice, and with demons of his own’

The Scotsman

‘An intriguing Victorian detective story … elegant and convincing’

The Times on Shadow of the Serpent

’Dripping with melodrama and derring-do’

The Herald on Fall from Grace

A Trick of the Light

An Inspector McLevy Mystery

DAVID ASHTON

TO
SONJA

Table of Contents

Praise
Title Page
Dedication
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
The McLevy Mysteries 
About the Author
ALSO BY DAVID ASHTON
Copyright

1

One of my cousins, long ago,
A little thing, the mirror said,
Was carried to a couch to show,
Whether a man was really dead.
J
AMES
T
HOMSON
, ‘In the Room’

Leith Docks, Edinburgh, 1864

The man had been running for his life. A shaft of light from one of the creaking ships moored in the harbour caught his face like a lover’s hand and tilted it to the side as he came to a juddering halt in one of the narrow wynds; the stone passages that spread like broken veins from the main artery of the Old Docks.

Breath jagged in his throat, heart jumping as he listened. Nothing. Good. He had lost them.

The face was almost petulant, a drooping full lower lip somewhat redeemed by the bony hooked nose and flecked hazel eyes. He had lost his hat in the chase and his golden hair glinted treacherously like a beacon in the stray beam of light. It flopped over one eye in a manner some might describe as affectation but his wife thought most becoming. Like a true plantation owner. A shadow in the sugar cane.

A bitter smile crossed the man’s face. His name was Jonathen Sinclair. He was an officer in the Confederate Army and a measure out of his depth as a clandestine agent beyond the battlefield.

And his wife? She was far away. Lost in a dream.

The silence was profound; just the soft hissing of the rain, hardly audible, a saturating, insidious blanket of moisture that seeped into his very bones.

Melissa. Sweet Melissa. They had married with the approaching Civil War as best man. Since then, only snatched moments of marital bliss where the grim spread of death and blood did not stain her pretty dress nor lessen the desire that her husband must acquit himself a hero.

But that was before Cemetery Ridge, and before the Alabama was sunk in Cherbourg breakwater with thousands howling on the shore as the ship went down. How many men swam under the sea that day? How many brave sailor boys? What songs were they singing?

Jonathen Sinclair realised – approaching midnight in the Leith docks, in a foreign land, in a damp, dank climate where the sun seemed to grudge each moment in the sky – that he was not a hero. Not by a long travail. He was capable of heroic deeds most certainly, but he could not hammer through the long pain. A real hero endures.

And when he dies, angels lead him to heaven where a white house stands upon the hill with a woman looking out the window. A farmer’s girl. Her face always the same. Loving and full of welcome. Waiting for him.

He almost burst out in a reflex of laughter but that small moment of release was strangled by a sound somewhere in the dark empty space that unrolled in all directions before him; one of which was out past the nudging ships and into the blank pitiless ocean.

Footsteps. Certain in pursuit. The fixed betrothed, coming for her ravaged bridegroom.

A sudden shriek on high and he clapped his hand over his own mouth to forestall startled response.

As if he had divided into two parts; one the grim guardian who had watched his own men, under the merciless hail of Union artillery, splinter into the sky, grey uniforms spouting red. And the other?

A young officer stands looking at himself in the mirror, slouch hat firmly upon his head, cord with acorn tassels stitched in place, travelling cape over his shoulders. A handsome dandy.

It was a seagull. No more. Damned bird. Screeching like a lost soul in the black sky above.

And the footsteps had stopped. Perhaps they had never existed. A figment of his guilty conscience.

Sinclair removed a hand from lips that had tasted forbidden fruits and puffed out a short breath.

He had learned the value of stillness, waiting in the reeds by the river to surprise a Union munitions column; arms so badly needed that they might justify the inglorious action about to be taken. Early morning, the sun new-risen, clouds like cotton, as if the world has just been born.

‘When I was young I us’d to wait
On Massa and hand him up his plate;
Pass down the bottle when he got dry,
And brush away de blue-tailed fly.’

Abe Lincoln’s favourite song they said. A minstrel song. A slave’s song. Of revenge.

A large horsefly with a blue-black belly had landed on the back of his hand where he gripped the revolver. It was searching out blood and stung through just as the ragged volley of shots rang out and the dark uniformed Union soldiers fell from their horses into the yellow waters.

His own soldier boys whooped and screamed as they waded out, bayonets fixed, knives in hand, to finish off the few survivors. The blade driven deep, cut and drown rather than waste a bullet, savages in threadbare Confederate grey; the war had turned them all into barbarians.

As they hauled the plunging horses with their precious cargo back towards the riverbank one of the floating bodies suddenly sprang to life and a terrified young Union soldier ran towards what he hoped might yet be safety amongst the long rushes, not seeing in his blind panic the still figure of the officer standing there.

Then he did. Halted. His mouth opened as if to say something in explanation before the back of his head exploded and he toppled to lie in the shallow water, fragments of bone and blood swirling forlornly around Sinclair’s muddy boots.

Corporal John Findhorn, who had fired the shot and would die of his wounds on the long retreat to Virginia after, like Sinclair, surviving the slaughter of Gettysburg, looked down at the corpse and shook his head. ‘That man should have stayed dead,’ he pronounced.

Findhorn, a Baptist from Arkansas, tended to the laconic. Sinclair found him a great relief. Most people, including himself, talked too damned much.

He sucked the back of his hand where the insect had drawn blood and spat it out to join the rusty streaks in the yellow water.

He and the corporal looked across and read death in the other’s eyes. Then Sinclair gazed up to where the sun burned with fierce indignation above in the powder blue sky.

The South had no base from which to build. Their only ironclad, the CSS Virginia, had been scuttled to prevent capture. No ships or guns; the Confederates could only steal or buy and the Union naval blockade was strangling them like an anaconda.

The blockade must be broken.

A sound jerked him back to the present. In front of his retreat, ships creaked quietly in the harbour like docile beasts of burden. Behind though. Surely he had not been outflanked? He turned slowly, hand sliding into the folds of a thick coat where his revolver had its resting place.

He had but three bullets remaining.

His eye caught a flicker of movement in the darkness. Low down. A crouched shape. Too small for a man, too large for an outcast dog.

Sinclair lunged with his free hand, the other gripped to his gun, and his clawed fingers found purchase on hair. Human hair. He hauled up, backwards to the faint light and looked into the feral, terrified face of a young boy.

‘Don’t mark me, sir,’ the captive whimpered, face crunched up in pain. ‘I’m no’ harmful.’

‘What are you doing here, eh?’ Sinclair spoke softly and dragged the boy close by to muffle the exchange, only too aware that more dangerous foes might lurk in the shadows.

‘Where I sleep,’ replied the other with muted indignation. ‘A’ right for some.’

This pallid show of gumption brought a brief smile to Sinclair’s lips.

He chose his words carefully. The Scots valued consonants more than vowels at times and he had mitigated his accent accordingly.

Light and clear. Keep it so.

‘What is your name?’

‘Samuel Grant.’

‘Not Ulysses S.?’ he asked with a bitter smile, reminded of the Union General who was a thorn in the flesh of the South and had driven the Johnny Rebs from Tennessee to open a route through Atlanta into the heart of the Confederacy.

BOOK: Trick of the Light
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