Chapter One: The Great Awi Bubu
March 23, 1907 I hate being followed. I especially hate being followed by a bunch of lunatic adults playing at being occultists. Unfortunately, the Black Sunners were out in full force today. I’d spotted the first one on High Street, and by the time I’d reached the Alcazar Theater, there were two more on my tail. I glanced at the sparse crowd waiting outside the rundown theater, my heart sinking when I saw that Sticky Will wasn’t there yet. Not knowing what else to do, I got in line for the ticket window, then checked to see if the men would follow. One leaned against the building across the street, and another one lounged against a lamppost, pretending to read the paper. "If you aren’t going to purchase a ticket, get out of the way," a coarse voice said. I pulled my gaze away from my pursuers to find the woman in the ticket booth glaring at me. While my attention had been focused elsewhere, the line had moved forward, and it was now my turn. "Sorry," I muttered, setting my coin on the counter. She snatched it up and shoved a green paper ticket at me. "Next?" she called out. As I left the ticket booth, Will was still nowhere in sight. Keeping a close eye on the Black Sunners for any sudden moves, I ventured over to the playbill pasted to the crumbling brick wall. INTRODUCINGTHE GREAT AWI BUBU!
PERFORMING REAL EGYPTIAN MAGIC!The lurid picture showed a man in traditional Egyptian garb raising a mummy. I was relatively sure that whatever the Great Awi Bubu did, it was not Egyptian magic. He was most likely some charlatan taking advantage of London’s heightened interest in all things Egyptian. Not that I’d had anything to do with that—well, not intentionally anyway. All those mummies running loose in London hadn’t really been my fault. How was I to know that there was such a thing as a staff that could raise the dead? Or that it would be lurking in the Museum of Legends and Antiquities’ basement? It could have happened to anyone. Sticky Will had been instrumental in fixing the situation, and in the process he’d learned a little more about my unique relationship with the artifacts in my father’s museum. Rather too much, if you asked me. But it couldn’t be helped. Oh, he didn’t know I was the only one who could sense the vile curses and black magic still clinging to the artifacts. Or the true extent of my knowledge of the ancient Egyptian rituals and practices that I’d used to remove the curses. But he had seen some of the magic in action. And he’d seen what unscrupulous people were willing to do to get their hands on it. Consequently, Will now spent a large portion of his time scouring London in search of even more Egyptian magic, determined to prove that he was ready, willing, and able to take on the dark forces that surrounded us. Which was why I now stood in front of the Alcazar Theater, ticket clutched in my hand, after everyone else had gone inside. The Black Sunners across the street—they called themselves scorpions, in honor of an old Egyptian myth—also seemed to realize that the crowd had thinned. With no one else about, one of the scorpions—Gerton, I believe— decided to make his move. Stepping away from the building, he headed across the street. Will or no Will, I had to get inside. As I turned for the door, I heard a loud, wet, snuffling sound from behind the ticket booth. I perked up. There was only one person I knew who could turn a runny nose into a calling card: Snuffles. I hurried around the corner, nearly bumping into one of Will’s younger brothers. He wore a loud, plaid morning coat that was so large it nearly dragged on the ground. His sleeves had been rolled up several times, and he peered up at me from under an enormous bowler hat that was held in place by his rather remarkable ears. "Yer late," he said. "No, I’m not. I’ve been waiting here for ages. Where’s Will?" "’E’s inside already. Sixth row from the stage, center section, aisle seat. And ’e says to ’urry. The show’s about to start." "Aren’t you coming?" "I’ll meet you inside," he said, then disappeared back down the street. With one final glance in Gerton’s direction, I proceeded to the theater entrance, gave my ticket to the porter, and went inside. The lobby was empty and I could hear the feeble music of an out-of-tune piano. I opened the door that led to the auditorium and found that the lights had already been turned down. I let my eyes adjust to the dark, relieved when I finally recognized Will in the sixth row. He was easy to spot, actually, as he kept turning in his seat and looking around. For me, no doubt. He spotted me, then waved. I hurried to the empty seat next to him. "Wot took you so long?" he asked. "I’ve been waiting out front for ages," I said. "Where were you?" Before I could answer, Snuffles and another boy appeared in the aisle. "Let us in," Snuffles said, a bit urgently. I turned my knees to the side so he could work past me. The second boy removed his tweed cap as he scooted by and I recognized the thin, pinched features of another one of Will’s brothers—Ratsy. We had met briefly aboard the Dreadnought
during a rather distracting set of circumstances. Nevertheless, he gave me a nod of greeting. "How did you get in here?" I whispered to Snuffles. He looked at Will, who pointedly wouldn’t meet my gaze. "We used a side entrance, miss. Now ’ush. It’s about to start." Just then, the piano music became louder, more jangling. The curtain opened. I settled back in the lumpy, threadbare seat and resolved to enjoy myself. The stage held two fake palm trees, a pyramid that looked as if it was made of papier-mâché, and half a dozen burning torches. A sarcophagus sat in the middle of the stage. The music stopped, and the theater was so quiet you could hear the hiss of the gas lamps. Slowly, the lid to the sarcophagus began to open. It fell against the side with a thud, then a figure rose up from its depths. "The Great Awi Bubu," a loud voice intoned from somewhere offstage, "will now perform amazing feats of Egyptian magic. This magic is old and dangerous, and the audience is advised to do exactly as the magician says in order to avoid any misfortune." The magician was a skinny, wizened man who did indeed look to be of Egyptian descent. His head was bald and rather large. He wore a pair of wire spectacles perched on his beakish nose; it gave him the air of a very old baby bird. He wore a tunic of white linen with a colorful collar that looked vaguely like ancient Egyptian dress. He stepped toward a basket near the front of the stage. Will elbowed me in the ribs. "Watch this now," he whispered. "I am
watching," I whispered back. What did he think, that I was sitting here with my eyes closed? Awi Bubu pulled a flutelike instrument from the folds of his robe and began to play a strange, haunting melody. Slowly, he sat down in front of the basket and crossed his legs. After another moment of music playing, the lid of the basket began to rise. It swayed gently, then fell to the side. "You must all be very quiet," the announcer told us in a hushed voice. "Any sudden noise could be disastrous." A moment later a small, dark form appeared at the lip of the basket. It hesitated for a moment, then darted free and scurried over to the magician. Several more forms followed. Scorpions—scores of them. I shivered as they scuttled their way up Awi Bubu’s legs, onto his chest, and across his arms. One even climbed up his neck to rest on his bald head, like a macabre hat. Throughout it all, other than playing his flute, the magician did not so much as twitch a muscle. As the audience held its breath, there was a disturbance at the back of the theater. "Hey! You can’t go in there without a ticket!" I craned my neck around to see two heavily cloaked men walking down the aisles, searching the faces in the theater. More scorpions! Only this time, of the human variety. I scrunched down low in my seat, grabbed Snuffles’s hat, and plopped it down on my own head, trying not to think of lice. I held my breath, hoping Gerton and Fell wouldn’t spot me. The strange music chose that moment to clatter to a stop. The two human scorpions came to a halt in the aisle, giving the porters a chance to catch up with them. As they were escorted out of the theater, Awi Bubu opened his eyes and, with surprising grace, rose to his feet, the scorpions still clinging to him. The audience gasped. Next to me, Will shuddered violently. "That’s disgusting, that is." "There must be a trick to it," I whispered back to him. "Scorpions are deadly poisonous. Perhaps he’s had all their stingers removed." Will cut a glance my way. "Do you always try to ruin the suspense, miss?" Before I could reply, there was a nudge in my ribs. "Can I ’ave me ’at back, miss?" "Sorry," I said, handing it to Snuffles. "Shh!" someone behind us hissed. I scowled, but was saved from answering when the music began again, coming in short staccato bursts. The scorpions changed their direction and began to crawl off the magician. However, instead of heading back to the basket, they scuttled to the edge of the stage. A woman screamed, and the audience reared back in their seats. "Quiet now," the announcer reminded us. "You don’t want to provoke the magician’s beasties." The entire audience (myself included) held its breath as the scorpions hovered at the edge of the stage. Finally, they gave one last wave of their claws and swarmed back into the basket. The audience relaxed a bit as the magician went over to secure the scorpions in the basket. Before he had finished, there was a loud thumping from within the pyramid. After two more thumps, something crashed right through and onto the stage. We all gasped in surprise as a mummy lumbered out. I glanced at Will, whose eyes were as big and round as guineas. Honestly. It was clearly a man wrapped up in linen; how could anyone be fooled by this? They wouldn’t be if they had ever seen a real mummy. Especially if they’d been unfortunate enough to see a real mummy on the move, as I had. I stifled a shudder. "It’s right creepy, ain’t it, miss?" Will whispered, mistaking my shudder as having to do with the mummy onstage. Not wanting to ruin his enjoyment, I simply said, "Fascinating." (Fascinating
is such a lovely word—it covers so many possibilities.) The mummy shuffled around onstage a bit while the audience oohed and aahed. Then the mummy paused, as if noticing the audience for the first time. Slowly and with great theatrics, he began to lurch toward the audience as if he planned to come right off the stage and into our midst. "Awi Bubu seems to have lost control of the mummy," the announcer said in a breathless voice. "Quick now, before it’s too late, toss coins at him. Coins are the only thing that will stop him." Oh, for heaven’s sake. What kind of operation was this anyway? There was a halfhearted smattering of coins onto the stage. From the corner of my eye, I saw Will, Ratsy, and Snuffles all toss something toward the mummy. That’s when I began to get angry. Will and his brothers had so little, as did most of the other people in this rundown joke of a theater. How dare the management try to milk even more of their hard-earned money from them? Finally, as if beaten back by the coins, the mummy retreated into the pyramid. The audience settled down, and I shifted in my seat. The torches dimmed and two stagehands dressed as Egyptian slaves hurried out onto the stage. While they laid bricks down on the floor, Awi Bubu went to one of the fake palm trees and lifted a bronze dish from behind it. "For Awi Bubu’s next amazing feat of magic, we need a volunteer from the audience. Who will volunteer?" Like deranged jack-in-the-boxes, Will, Snuffles, and Ratsy leaped to their feet, their hands thrust high into the air. Awi Bubu studied the audience carefully before raising a long skinny arm and pointing at Ratsy. He gave a hoot of glee, and Will and Snuffles groaned in disappointment. An usher arrived at the end of the row to escort Ratsy up onto the stage. Once Ratsy was there, Awi Bubu positioned him on the bricks, face-down, then set the vessel on the floor by his head. One of the stagehands lit some incense, and Awi Bubu poured a few drops from a flask into the bronze dish. A jolt of recognition shot through me. The Great Awi Bubu was reenacting an ancient Egyptian oracular ceremony, the very same one Aloysius Trawley had forced me to perform a few short weeks ago! Whoever this magician was, he clearly knew something about real ancient Egyptian practices. Which made him very interesting indeed. "Remove all thoughts from your mind," the magician instructed Ratsy in a low, singsongy voice. "Let it become a blank slate by which the gods can communicate." Then he began to chant. "Horus, we call upon your power and strength. Open this child’s eyes to your wisdom." I sat bolt upright in my seat. Those were the exact words that Trawley had used. Did this Awi Bubu belong to Trawley’s Arcane Order of the Black Sun—a secret society dedicated to matters of the occult? Is that why Trawley’s men had been so comfortable barging into the theater? As the smell of incense in the theater began to overpower the smell of gin, Awi Bubu asked Ratsy a question. "What is your name?" "Ratsy." "What is your occupation?" "A rat catcher." I was suddenly very glad Will hadn’t been picked; he’d have been forced to confess he was a pickpocket in front of this rough crowd. "Where do you live?" "Nottingham Court, off Drury Lane." The magician turned to the audience. "Who has a question they’d like to ask the oracle?" Hands shot into the air. How could people be so gullible? How could they not tell this was all a hoax? But no one seemed to suspect a thing. They were all waving their arms in the air, hoping Awi Bubu would pick them. "Will me old man’s ship come in soon?" a young clerk clutching his hat in his hand called out. "No. He will be in debtors’ prison by the end of the year," Ratsy intoned in a hollow voice. A woman sprang to her feet. "Will my son get better?" "’E’ll be right as rain come next Tuesday." She closed her eyes in relief. "What ’orse should I bet on this Saturday?" a man shouted. "Pride o’ the Morning," Ratsy said. The man—along with half the occupants of the theater—hastily scribbled the name down on a scrap of paper. "Will there be any more funny business like them mummies?" an old man asked, his question causing the others to quiet down. There was a pause, then: "The Black Sun shall rise up in a red sky before falling to earth, where a great serpent will swallow it." I gasped. Those were the very words I had uttered to Trawley! How did Ratsy know? Had Awi Bubu slipped him a note? Whispered in his ear? Surely this proved the magician was one of Trawley’s men. "It is time to come back to earth, my child," Awi Bubu said gently. Ratsy blinked, then scrambled to his feet and looked sheepish. "Will I ’ave a chance to do magic?" he asked. "You have
done magic," Awi Bubu informed him kindly. Then he bowed. The audience applauded, and Ratsy flushed bright red all the way to his ears. Awi Bubu motioned to Ratsy, and the audience applauded even louder. As Ratsy made his way back to his seat, the magician bowed one last time, and then the curtains closed. People began leaving their seats and heading up to the exits, but there was one determined man coming down the aisle. Gerton had got past the porter somehow. I quickly turned to Will. "Do you think you could get us backstage? I’d like to meet this magician of yours." Will’s face brightened. "’E’s something, ain’t ’e, miss! I told you I could be more than just an errand boy. I’ve got a nose for this stuff, I ’ave." "Er, yes, you do," I agreed. "Can we hurry?" I asked, glancing once more at the approaching Gerton."I’m sure Ratsy can get ye back there. Let’s ask ’im." We went toward the stage and caught up with Ratsy just as he was coming down the steps. He still looked a bit dazed and sheepish. "Did I really do magic?" he asked. "Sure did, bucko! Spouted out all sorts of stuff. Ratsy’s small pinched face glowed with pleasure. "D’you fink you could get us backstage? You knows the way, don’t you, Rats?" Ratsy nodded. "Sure." Will turned to Snuffles. "You guard the exit so it don’t get locked before we’re done ’ere." With a quick look around, Ratsy led me and Will toward a small door to the left of the main stage. I glanced over my shoulder. Gerton was still searching through the seats, trying to find me. Almost as if he’d felt my gaze on him, he lifted his head and looked my way. I quickly darted through the door, hoping he hadn’t seen me.