A Stolen Shadow

by

H L Marsay

This winter, the York pantomime opens as a farce but closes as a murder scene

Chief Inspector John Shadow returns from a rare holiday to Italy but before he can unpack, he’s investigating the theft of an antique sabre. Everyone involved assumes it’s a prank, however later that evening, a reluctant Shadow attends the local pantomime—his least favorite form of entertainment—with his star struck sergeant. They watch stunned as Prince Charming dies on stage. Shadow suspects poison and launches an investigation. When he discovers the missing sabre backstage, Shadow realises the theft was no joke and the entire cast and crew are murder suspects. Then another body is found….

John Shadow is a man of contradictions. A solitary figure who shuns company but is a keen observer of all he meets. A lover of good food, but whose fridge is almost always empty. He prefers to work alone but is assisted by the eager Sergeant Jimmy Chang. Together, the two men must work through an ever increasing list of jealous husbands, angry fathers and spurned lovers to discover the identity of the killer.

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Chapter One

Across 5 (5 letters)

The foot had the middle stolen

Through the gloom, the towers of York Minster were slowly coming into view as the wipers swished rhythmically back and forth across the windscreen of the BMW travelling along the A64. From his position in the back seat, Chief Inspector John Shadow stared out of the window. He knew this sleety January rain well. It was the sort that would last all day, falling from leaden clouds that meant it would never get properly light. It wasn’t much of a welcome home.

His mood wasn’t improved by the fact that he seemed to have been picked up from Leeds Bradford Airport by the county’s most talkative taxi driver. In his experience, Yorkshire taxi drivers usually limited themselves to a brief comment about the weather then spent the rest of the journey in silence shaking their heads and tutting at the behaviour of other road users. However, the man behind the wheel this morning had so far informed him of his wife’s shortcomings when it came to making stuffing for Christmas dinner, the failings of the current Leeds United manager and the incompetence of York council’s transport policy. At least Shadow hadn’t been required to do more than issue the occasional nod and grunt of agreement. Until now.

“Were you in London long, mate?”

He hated being called mate.

“Only for the night.”

“I don’t blame you, mate. I wouldn’t go to London if you paid me.”

“I see.”

“No. The place is full of southerners.”

Shadow merely nodded again. He couldn’t fault the man’s logic, but he didn’t feel inclined to explain that he’d only spent the night in an airport hotel after arriving at Heathrow from Bari, via Milan. He had spent Christmas and New Year in southern Italy, where Luisa, the woman he had loved and lost almost thirty years ago, had grown up. Luca, Luisa’s brother, had invited Shadow to spend the festive period with him and his family. It felt a lot longer than twenty-four hours since he’d left the warmth of their hospitality and the Apulian sun behind.

The car and its talkative driver weaved through the city streets until they arrived on Skeldergate Bridge. There they pulled up by the steps that led down to the River Ouse. Shadow stepped out and looked across the dark expanse of water. He could see the outline of Florence, the narrow boat he had called home for nearly thirty years. However, inside right now and probably fast asleep were Jake and Missy. He’d left Florence in their care and didn’t have the heart to wake either of them up this early. Jake and Missy, his belligerent dog, normally lived on the streets, but Shadow had let them stay aboard his barge while he was in Italy. Reluctantly, he climbed back into the taxi.

“Take me up to the Guildhall instead, will you?” he asked.

His driver shrugged. “Whatever you say. You’re the one paying, mate.”

The ancient medieval Guildhall had played many roles over the centuries but was now home to the city’s police. Lugging his suitcase along, Shadow walked beneath the archway, across the stone-paved courtyard and through the doors into the reception. There was no sign of the desk sergeant, or anyone else. He trudged up the stairs to his office and flicked on the fluorescent light. He was relieved to see Jimmy Chang, his sergeant, had removed the artificial Christmas tree he’d insisted on putting up on Shadow’s desk. Predictably though, he’d done a less than adequate job of clearing up after himself. He swept some stray strands of tinsel and glitter from his chair, took off his damp wax jacket and sat down. Various reports and memos were stacked in a pile on his desk, but Shadow ignored them. Instead, he put his feet up on the sill of the window that overlooked the river and waited for the sun to rise.

“You’re back, Chief. Did you have a good time? I thought I saw a light on in here.”

Shadow woke up with a start to find his sergeant beaming at him, despite the large white foam collar around his neck.

“And your observational skills are as sharp as ever, Sergeant Chang. I suppose I should be grateful you’re only in a neck brace and not on crutches,” snapped back Shadow with a frown. He’d said all along that a honeymoon in the Alps was a bad idea.

“Oh, I didn’t do this skiing. I slipped on some black ice getting out of the taxi home. Sophie thinks I might have whiplash and told me I should wear this for a couple of weeks. Technically, Chief, it’s a cervical collar, not a neck brace.”

“Is that so? And what are we busy with this morning, assuming you are capable of working in a cervical collar?”

“Of course, Chief. It does make getting in and out of cars a bit awkward though.”

Shadow could well imagine. Jimmy’s tall angular frame struggled to be accommodated in some of the city’s low-ceilinged buildings and the smaller pool cars as it was. He stood up, stretched his shoulders and yawned.

“Then I suggest you walk to wherever you are next called out to.”

“It’ll be Tadcaster Road, Chief. A report of a stolen weapon has just come in,” replied Jimmy, consulting his ever-present electronic notebook.

“What sort of weapon?”

“A sabre. An antique sabre to be exact. Thought to date from 1854.”

“Who on earth had one of those?”

“The army, Chief.”

“Oh well, that makes sense, I suppose.”

“Can you give me five minutes? I need to find an umbrella. I’m not supposed to get my collar wet.”

Shadow reached for his jacket hanging on the back of his chair. “Take as long as you want. I’m not going anywhere until I’ve had some breakfast. You know where to find me.”

Five minutes later, Shadow was wiping the raindrops from his face as he took a seat at his favourite table in the corner of Bettys Tearoom. He placed his order, unfolded the copy of the Yorkshire Post he’d picked up at the airport and hoped his fellow diners couldn’t hear his stomach growling in anticipation. There were many things he loved about Italy and the Italians, but they hadn’t really got the hang of breakfast. The small piece of almond cake and cappuccino he’d had each morning didn’t come close to a full English with a pot of Yorkshire tea.

As he swallowed the last mouthful of bacon and pushed his knife and fork together with a sigh of satisfaction, a massive multi-coloured umbrella appeared from the entrance to the Guildhall. Wearily he rose to his feet, paid the bill and stepped outside. He watched, bemused as Jimmy struggled to keep the umbrella steady as he skipped and dodged around puddles littering St Helen’s Square. No doubt he was attempting to protect his latest pair of expensive trainers.

“I don’t think much to your Gene Kelly impression,” he commented.

“What’s that, Chief?” his sergeant replied, looking confused.

“Never mind. Let’s go.”

The two of them set off, huddled together beneath the unwieldy umbrella. Shadow had to endure almost an hour of endless chatter from his sergeant, who was reporting every detail of his fortnight in the Alps as if it was a murder investigation. Shadow was only grateful he hadn’t made notes. The first week, he and Sophie, his new wife and one of the pathologists they worked with, had been alone, but during the second week, they were joined by a large group of friends. Shadow heard all about who was great at skiing: Sophie. Who was useless at snowboarding: Jimmy. And who had made fools of themselves after overindulging in the après-ski: Ben and Ollie, the two forensic scientists they also worked with.

“What about you, Chief?” asked Jimmy when he’d finally finished his report. “Did you have a good time in Italy?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“You’ve got a suntan. It really suits you. I’ve never seen you with a tan before.”

“They aren’t as easy to acquire in North Yorkshire as they are in Southern Italy.”

“How was Luisa’s family?”

“Fine. How did Sophie take finding out the woman who married you was a killer?”

“Actually, she took it really well. She said she was just relieved we hadn’t had to rearrange the ceremony and that I should thank you for not arresting the dean until we’d left.”

Shadow smiled and shook his head. Jimmy and Sophie’s marriage had taken place at York Minster, and almost immediately afterwards, he’d had to arrest the dean on suspicion of murdering her husband’s lover.

“Your wife might be the most pragmatic woman I’ve ever met. You are a lucky man.”

“I am,” he agreed immediately. “And like I told Soph, I bet there is an ancient proverb from the Greeks or Egyptians or someone about ‘the worse the person that shall marry thee, the happier the marriage shall be.’ That kind of thing.”

“I hope for your sake you’re right,” murmured Shadow, although he wasn’t convinced any culture had ever considered being married by a murderer to be a fortuitous sign. However, when it came to misplaced optimism, nobody could compete with his sergeant.

By now, they had arrived outside an impressive detached Regency villa. The large rather ugly metal gates carried a sign that read “Regiment Headquarters Yorkshire Hussars” above a crest showing a white rose over two crossed swords. Jimmy pressed the button on the intercom, and a second later a loud voice barked at them out of the tinny-sounding speaker.

“Yes, who is it? Look into the camera. Show yourselves.”

Jimmy raised the umbrella, showering them both with raindrops. He and Shadow both squinted at the tiny camera.

“It’s the police, sir,” replied Jimmy. “Chief Inspector Shadow and Detective Sergeant Chang.” He began rummaging in his pocket, but before he could produce his warrant card, the voice shouted again.

“Yes, yes. Excellent. I’ll see you at the front door.”

A second later, the heavy metal gate slowly opened with a loud grating sound. The two detectives walked through and up the steps leading to the polished oak front door. Neither of them needed to ring the doorbell, as it was immediately opened by a tall, grey-haired man with a neatly trimmed moustache and dressed in army fatigues. His right arm shot out, and he grasped first Shadow’s hand and then Jimmy’s.

“Major Ian Armitage. Good of you to come, Chief Inspector, Sergeant,” he said while pumping each of their arms up and down vigorously. “Come in, come in.”

“Thank you, sir,” replied Shadow, stepping inside while Jimmy followed, wincing slightly and rubbing his wrist. Major Armitage’s well-polished boots marched across the parquet flooring of the grand reception hall. The walls were covered in the regimental colours and huge portraits of men in dress uniform. Shadow assumed they were generals or the regiment’s past colonels-in-chief.

“As I told the chap I spoke to on the phone,” the major barked over his shoulder, “I’m sure it will turn up. I don’t want to waste your time, but it is an offensive weapon after all and rather valuable.”

“Quite right, sir,” replied Shadow, quickening his pace to keep up.

The major led them through double doors into the dining room, past the vast table that, after a quick tally, Shadow noted seated thirty, and pointed to the wall above the ornate fireplace. Screwed to the wall there were four brass brackets. Two were holding an antique rifle but the other two were empty.

“That’s where it should be.”

“Are you able to give us a description, sir?” asked Shadow.

Major Armitage frowned for a second. “Well, it’s a sabre, Chief Inspector. You know, a curved sword.” He held his hands out in front of him about three feet apart. “It’s about so long. Traditionally used by the cavalry. This particular one was used at the Charge of the Light Brigade.”

“What was that, Major?” asked Jimmy, who was busily noting down all the details.

Shadow groaned inwardly. His sergeant’s grasp of history was worse than his trainers’ grip on wet surfaces. However, the major seemed to think he’d only been misheard.

“I said, it was used at the Charge of the Light Brigade,” he bellowed. “Not the British army’s finest hour admittedly, and of course the Russians were making a nuisance of themselves again.” Shadow could see Jimmy open his mouth, so he quickly stepped in.

“When did you first become aware that the sabre was missing, sir?” he asked.

“Actually, it wasn’t me who noticed it, but Stanley Beresford. He was here yesterday afternoon and called me to ask if I knew where it was. I came and had a look for myself, then telephoned you chaps.”

“Stanley Beresford?” queried Jimmy.

“He’s a good man, Stan. Used to be one of our sergeant majors. Retired about three years ago when his wife became ill. Now he looks after the regiment’s regalia and keeps a check on our archives. He’ll be the one to ask about the valuation. It made sense he was the one to spot the sabre was missing. I can tell you that it was definitely here on Saturday evening though, Chief Inspector. We had a regimental dinner. A belated celebration to commemorate the birthday of John Manners, the Marquess of Granby, our first colonel-in-chief.”

“It was on view in quite a prominent position, and someone would need to stand on a stepladder to take it down. How do you think someone was able to remove it without anyone noticing, Major?” asked Shadow.

“Oh, it had already been removed from its usual position in anticipation of the dinner, Chief Inspector. Traditionally we use it to open the champagne.”

“Really? That sounds amazing,” said Jimmy, looking up from his notes.

“It is rather a fun party trick, Sergeant,” agreed the major with an almost childish grin. “It’s known as sabrage. Here let me show you.” He removed his phone from one of his trouser pockets, pressed a few buttons and turned the screen towards the two detectives. Shadow fumbled to put on his reading glasses as a video began playing of a rowdy dinner consisting exclusively of men wearing the red dress uniform of the regiment. The camera scanned along the diners, then focused on the major, who was standing at the head of the table with a bottle of champagne in one hand and a sabre in the other. “The Marquess of Granby,” he declared. Then with one swift motion he swung the sword down and sliced the top off the bottle. A small cloud of gas was released but barely a drop of champagne was lost. This was met by much cheering and clapping from his audience. Jimmy joined in with the applause.

“Wow. That is seriously cool,” he said. “How long did it take to learn how to do it?”

“Not long at all. It’s all to do with the angle and the speed. The trick is not to hesitate. I’ll teach you how to do it once the sabre turns up again, Sergeant.”

“Thanks! That would be amazing.”

Shadow loudly cleared his throat before the two of them formed a mutual appreciation society.

“Perhaps you would be kind enough to forward that video and any other images you may have of the sabre to help with the investigation. Would I be correct in thinking the evening wasn’t an entirely sober affair, sir?”

“You certainly would, Chief Inspector.”

“Then could it simply be a drunken prank?” asked Shadow.

“More than likely, I’d say. That was certainly my first thought. I’ve sent an email out to all the chaps who were here for the dinner, but no positive responses, so I thought I should report it. It might be over a hundred and fifty years old, but you could still certainly do some damage with it. We don’t want it falling into the wrong hands.”

Shadow nodded and glanced around the room. There were several large windows overlooking the rear-walled garden.

“Are there any signs of a break-in?” he asked.

The major shook his head. “None whatsoever. This place is like Fort Knox. You saw for yourselves our entry system.” He gestured to the garden. “There’s an eight-foot wall topped with barbed wire running all the way around the place and nine times out of ten there is a serving or ex-solider on site. If you are thinking it could be some local burglar chancing his luck, then I’m sure they could find easier targets. Besides, nothing else is missing. There’s a decent amount of petty cash upstairs in one of the offices and a pair of silver goblets in the hallway but nothing else has been touched.”

Shadow nodded again. It was sounding more and more like it had been taken by one of the dinner guests.

“Do you recall if it was still here when you left the dining room at the end of the evening?” he asked.

“I’m afraid I can’t help you there, Chief Inspector. I was completely blotto. Arthur was the only sober one amongst us.”

“Arthur?” enquired Jimmy, poised to make another note.

“Our regimental whippet,” replied the major. “He attends all our dinners. Wouldn’t be the same without him. Although he’s been a bit under the weather recently. Poor chap.”

Jimmy looked impressed again. “Do all regiments have their own whippet?”

“No, we are the only ones as far as I know. The Irish Guards have an Irish wolfhound though, and the Royal Welsh have a goat and the paras have a Shetland pony. None of them are a patch on Arthur though, Sergeant.”

Sensing Jimmy would be keen to know more about these regimental animal mascots, Shadow stepped forward and shook the major’s hand.

“And we hope Arthur is feeling better soon. Thank you for your time, sir. If you could also email us a list of everyone who was present at the dinner and the insurance valuation of the sabre, that would be very helpful. We’ll be in touch if we have any news.”

“Excellent, excellent. As I said, it’s bound to show up. Good day, gentlemen.”

The major showed Shadow and Jimmy to the door, and the two of them stepped back through the clanking electric gates. Fortunately, the rain had become more of a damp mist and Jimmy could now tuck the umbrella awkwardly under his arm.

“What do you think, Chief?”

“I think Major Armitage is right. The sabre will no doubt turn up in the next day or two. They were all absolutely steaming in that video. One of them will have thought it was hilarious to take it home with them and will probably return it when they discover it in their garden. Having said that, you should probably contact any auction houses or dealers in antique weapons. Check someone hasn’t stolen it and is trying to sell it on. Phone around the local taxi firms too. See if anyone remembers collecting a fare from here after the dinner.”

“Will do, Chief. By the way, who was this John Manners guy?” Jimmy asked as they strolled back down Tadcaster Road. “Major Armitage said they were celebrating his birthday. I thought the Marquess of Granby was the name of a pub.”

“There are plenty of pubs named after him. He was the son of the Duke of Rutland and a famous general during the 1700s. He was also known for his generosity towards his men and gave retired soldiers money from his own pocket so they could set up in business as publicans.”

“Wow. He sounds great. No wonder they are still celebrating him.”

“Yes, not that being well-loved did him any good. He died in Scarborough before he had inherited the dukedom and was almost penniless.”

By now they had now reached Blossom Street and the owner of Fryer Tuck’s Fish and Chips was turning over the open sign as they approached.

“That’s good timing. Let’s call in here,” said Shadow, sniffing the air appreciatively.

“You know it’s only been a couple of hours since breakfast, Chief?”

“I am aware of the time, Sergeant. Do you have a point?”

“They don’t have fish and chips in Italy, do they?”

“No, they do not,” replied Shadow, rubbing his hands together as he stepped inside. “If you’re not hungry, shall I just get you a dandelion and burdock?”

Jimmy pulled a face. “No thanks, I think I’ll have a coffee.” Then under his breath: “Actually I won’t bother. I think they might only do instant.”

Shadow sighed. His sergeant was something of a coffee snob.

“Please yourself. Why don’t you get back to the station and start making some phone calls and leave me to eat my lunch in peace.”

When Shadow eventually arrived back at the station, feeling a little bloated, he found Jimmy at the reception desk. He was talking to a familiar figure in camouflage trousers and jacket accompanied by a cross-looking spaniel. All three turned around when they heard him enter.

“I’ve brought your keys. Cheers for letting us stay,” said Jake, dropping the keys to Florence into Shadow’s hand.

“How did you know I was back?” asked Shadow.

“Good news travels fast.”

“Where will you go next?” asked Jimmy, who was now on his hands and knees fussing Missy, who in return was wagging her tail in uncharacteristic delight.

“Naburn. We got talking to some other boat people down at the marina there. We’re going to look after another boat that belongs to an old couple while they go off to see their grandkids in Australia. Some other weekenders want to start paying me to keep an eye on their boats too and do a bit of maintenance like.”

“Hey, that’s great news,” replied Jimmy enthusiastically while Missy licked his face.

Jake shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. “It turns out boats suit me and Missy. And I haven’t forgotten you owe me a fiver.”

“Have you been gambling, Sergeant? That doesn’t sound like you,” said Shadow.

Jake grinned. “We had a bet. He didn’t think you’d be coming back,” he explained.

Now it was Jimmy’s turn to look embarrassed as he got to his feet and handed over a five-pound note.

“Well, I wasn’t sure, Chief. After all, you love everything about Italy, and you seemed to really hit it off with Luca. It would have made sense if you’d decided to stay there.”

Jake shook his head. “Nah, I knew you’d be back. Besides, York wouldn’t be the same without your happy smiling face around the place.”

He stuffed the note into his pocket and turned to go, whistling for Missy, who bounded after him through the door. Shadow watched them leave.

“I didn’t know there were that many other people living on boats in York,” he commented.

“Oh, there’s at least a dozen or so, mainly down at Naburn, like Jake said. It’s a great little community down there; you know, helping each other out and socialising.” Jimmy paused. “But I guess that isn’t really your kind of thing, Chief.”

Shadow merely grunted in response, although it was true. He could think of little he’d like less than to be surrounded by other boats with their inhabitants forever asking to borrow something or having to constantly find excuses when they invited him to join them for a drink or, worse, supper. He chose to live on the river so he could get some peace and quiet. He already had more than enough trouble to deal with from his only neighbours: a family of delinquent geese.

“Any sign of the missing sabre?” he asked.

“No. None of the local antiques dealers or auction houses I spoke to have been approached. A couple of taxi firms reported collecting some of the officers from the regimental dinner. They confirmed everyone was pretty plastered, but nobody recalls anyone carrying anything that could have been a sabre or referring to it in any way. I’m waiting for Stanley Beresford – you know, the guy the major told us about who looks after all the regalia – to get back to me about the insurance value, but one of the auctioneers I spoke to thought it would be worth around one hundred and twenty thousand pounds. It’s got excellent provenance, apparently.”

Shadow raised his eyebrows. “That makes it a rather expensive bottle opener. When you speak to Mr Beresford, check who the insurance company pays out to. Is it the regiment or is an individual named on the policy?”

“Will do, Chief. What are you doing now?”

Shadow struggled to stifle a yawn. “I’m going upstairs to catch up on some paperwork.”

Jimmy grinned. “Good idea, Chief. By the way, there’s some cushions and pillows in the well-being room if you need them.”

“The what?” asked Shadow with a frown.

“The well-being room. It’s in George’s old office next to the archives. The chief constable came up with the idea while you were away. She thought it would be good to have a place for any officers who are feeling stressed to go and chill out for a bit. There’s blackout blinds and dim lighting, sofas, blankets and a sound system that plays relaxing music. It’s really popular.”

Shadow turned away, shaking his head. “Good, and I’m sure it will boost conviction rates too. No criminal wants to face the prospect of a chilled-out police officer arresting them.”

He returned to his office, still grumbling to himself, and resumed his previous position of sitting in his chair with his feet on the windowsill. It was more than adequate. Why anyone should need sofas and blankets when they were meant to be working, he’d never know. He picked up the pile of papers on his desk and dropped them into the rubbish bin. The suitcase, still in the corner where he’d left it, reminded him that he should probably return to Florence and unpack. There was no excuse now Jake had returned the keys, but for some reason the idea didn’t appeal. Instead, he turned his attention to the remaining clues in his crossword.

It was several hours later when he was woken again with a start by the sound of his office door opening and his sergeant’s cheerful greeting.

“Why do I feel like I’m experiencing déjà vu?” he complained.

“Sorry, Chief, but it’s five o’clock.”

“I must have dozed off. It’s probably jet lag.”

“I told Mum you’re back. She wants you to come to supper tonight.”

Shadow stood up, feeling slightly mollified. “That’s very kind of her.”

“She knew you wouldn’t have been shopping yet, and I was telling her about the food you’d missed out on in Italy. I think she assumed that would include her beef in black bean sauce.”

“She was right on both counts. Any more news about the missing sabre?”

“Stanley Beresford called me back and confirmed that it is insured for one hundred and thirty thousand pounds.”

“Did he say who would get the money?”

“An individual isn’t named on the policy, so it would ultimately go to the Ministry of Defence, but Mr Beresford thinks there is a chance the insurance company might not pay out if it turns out it has been lost after being taken out of the regimental headquarters by a serving officer without permission.”

“So, if it doesn’t turn up, it could prove to be quite embarrassing for the major. He didn’t seem particularly concerned though, did he?”

“No,” agreed Jimmy. “But like he said, it was probably only a prank, and it will be returned. Mr Beresford also mentioned that some of the regiment, including quite a few who were at the dinner, are now away on manoeuvres up in Scotland. They might not have received the major’s email. He emailed me a decent photo of the sabre, so I’ve circulated that too.”

“Then, I don’t see there’s much more we can do right now. Time to go.”

The two of them left the station and walked across St Helen’s Square and down Stonegate. Even in January, it was busy with shoppers laden down with bags after a successful hunting trip for a bargain in the sales. It had grown dark whilst Shadow had been dozing, but at least the rain had stopped for a while. As they passed the Minster, the bells chimed a quarter past the hour.

“We’re early,” commented Shadow, knowing the Golden Dragon didn’t usually open until six.

“I’m going to the theatre tonight so Mum said she would cook for us before the restaurant opens.”

“What are you going to see?”

“Snow White – it’s this year’s pantomime from the Ebor Entertainers. Apparently, they always hand out tickets to the police, the hospital, the fire service. It was the chief constable’s idea that I go and represent the station – you know, as a kind of reward for helping catch the Snowman,” he explained, referring to a gangster who had recently been apprehended.

Shadow grunted and shook his head. “They do say no good deed goes unpunished.”

“What’s wrong with pantomimes?”

“They are the worst contribution this country has made to the world of so-called entertainment…” he paused “…with the possible of exception of Morris dancing.”

Jimmy shrugged. “I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve never been to a pantomime before.”

“Then think yourself lucky.”

Just then, Shadow spotted a petite woman wrapped up in her favourite green coat, hat and scarf hurrying towards them from the other end of Goodramgate. He raised his hand in greeting.

“Hello, stranger,” said Maggie. “How’s the neck, Jimmy?”

“Not too bad, thank you, Mrs Jackson.”

She turned back to Shadow. “How was Italy? You don’t look very happy to be back.”

“That’s my fault,” replied Jimmy before Shadow could say a word. “I mentioned pantomimes, and it turns out he’s not a fan.”

“She knows that already. Our primary school used to make us go every year,” complained Shadow.

“I think it was meant to be a treat, not a trial, John,” said Maggie and grinned at Jimmy. “Even when he was eight years old, he would sit there in the stalls with his arms folded and a face like thunder. Ignore him, love. You’ll have a great time.”

“Thanks, I hope so, but I don’t really like the idea of going on my own.”

“Oh no, that will be a bit lonely,” agreed Maggie. She gave Shadow a meaningful look.

“Why aren’t you taking Sophie?” he asked quickly.

“She’s working.”

“What about your mum or your sister?”

“Mum’s working as well and Angela will already be there. She’s helping out backstage. Some of her pupils are playing the seven dwarves. That only leaves Grandad, and it would be no good taking him. You know what his English is like. He’ll never work out what’s going on.”

“He won’t be the only one. It’ll be utter nonsense,” chuntered Shadow.

“For goodness’ sake,” chided Maggie. “Stop trying to get out of it. A night out won’t kill you. Who knows, a miracle might happen and you might actually enjoy yourself.”

“Why don’t you go with him, if you’re so keen?” he shot back defensively.

“I’m already going. I got my great-nieces and nephews tickets for Christmas, so my sister and I are taking them tomorrow night before I go away.”

“Where are you going?”

“Spain.” She gave an exaggerated shiver. “I’m in serious need of some winter sun, plus Sam didn’t come home for Christmas and New Year, so I’m going over to celebrate his birthday with him instead.”

Shadow let this news sink in for a second, surprised by how disappointed he felt.

“How long are you going for?” he asked.

Maggie shrugged. “I’m not sure. I haven’t booked a return ticket yet. Why?”

“I was just making conversation.”

“Well, that’s a first!”

“We’re going for dinner with Mum. Would you like to join us?” asked Jimmy.

“Maybe another time, love. I need to get to the post office before it closes. Enjoy your evening. Both of you.”

And with that she walked briskly down the street, waving to various other shopkeepers and people she knew. Shadow watched her go before striding after Jimmy.

“Did she seem a bit tetchy to you?” he asked.

Jimmy frowned. “Not really. Well, maybe she wasn’t quite as chatty as usual. Have you done something to upset her?”

“How could I? I’ve only been back five minutes.”

Jimmy gave him a sidelong look. “You know, you might get back into her good books if she thinks you followed her suggestion and came to the pantomime tonight.”

Shadow held up his hand in surrender. “All right, all right. Anything for a quiet life.”

They arrived at the Golden Dragon, Jimmy’s mother’s restaurant, and Rose rushed to greet her son as if she hadn’t seen him for a year. Then she politely shook Shadow’s hand and welcomed him home before ushering them to their usual table next to the kitchen.

“You look so thin, Jimmy! Let me get you some spring rolls and prawn toast,” she called over her shoulder as she disappeared into the kitchen.

“When did you last see her?” whispered Shadow.

“Last week,” Jimmy whispered back. “I don’t think she’s got used to me not living at home yet. She thinks I’m not eating enough and nearly burst into tears when she saw what had happened to my neck.”

At that moment, Jimmy’s grandfather came down the stairs. The old man gave Shadow a toothy grin and pointed to Jimmy. “He’s behind you! Ha! Ha!” before continuing on his way into the kitchen still chuckling.

“What happened to him not speaking any English?” asked Shadow.

“Angela has been teaching him some of the audience participation bits from the pantomime. He loves it.”

“Like I said, you should take him,” muttered Shadow. The grandfather appeared again, this time with his backgammon board tucked under his arm.

“Time for a game?” asked Shadow. The two of them always played when he visited.

“Oh no it isn’t!” replied the old man with another grin as he placed the pieces on the board. Shadow sighed. He’d preferred it when he was silent.

End of Excerpt

A Stolen Shadow is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-961544-53-6

January 25, 2024

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