Bram Stoker, business manager for London’s Lyceum Theatre, is never surprised to find the supernatural waiting in the wings—especially when a chilling murder appears to have origins in the occult…
March 1881. The Lyceum is abuzz with the news that American actor Edwin Booth is going to be sharing the stage with their own Shakespearean star, Henry Irving. But stage manager Harry Rivers has other matters preoccupying him. One of the regular actresses has disappeared, and after a disturbing tarot card reading, Harry’s boss, Bram Stoker, is convinced that something wicked is coming their way.
When the poor girl’s body is found, Stoker’s suspicions prove to be founded—the murder scene is riddled with strange clues that Stoker recognizes as the trappings of an occult ritual. Someone is conjuring up a pernicious plot against cast and crew of the Lyceum, and if Harry doesn’t track down the slaying sorcerer quickly, it could spell disaster for those he holds dearest…
About the Author
Raymond Buckland is a prolific author with books translated into seventeen foreign languages. His newest series, the Bram Stoker mysteries, includes Cursed in the Act and Dead for a Spell. Born and raised in England, he is fascinated with the Victorian age and loves to set his mysteries in that era. Today he lives with his wife and two Chihuahuas on a small farm in Ohio.
Read an Excerpt
LONDON, MARCH 22, 1881
I got up from where I sat, near the door, and moved around to stand facing the boy. “So what makes you think that she’s missing?” I asked.
“We was to meet for breakfast, Mr. Rivers,” he said. “We always do; every mornin’. At the ’ot chocolate stand on the corner down the road. Just a cuppa and a slice of bread but, well, it was a start to the day, you might say.”
“All right, Billy. Take it slowly and go over it one more time,” said Stoker, studying the young man who sat on the edge of the straight-backed chair in front of his desk.
Abraham “Bram” Stoker was theatre manager of the Lyceum Theatre, and I, Harry Rivers, was stage manager. I was also a personal assistant to Mr. Stoker, running any number of errands for him, Lyceum business and otherwise.
“It’s Nell, sir. Nell Burton.” Billy Weston ran a dirty finger around the frayed neck of his collarless shirt. “She’s done mostly crowd scenes since she’s been ’ere, which ain’t long. She’s one of the Players in Act Two of ’Amlet. But, sir, she’s gone missin’.”
Mr. Stoker gave me a quick glance, one eyebrow raised.
“After last night’s performance she ’urried away; said that she ’ad a most important fing she ’ad to do. She wouldn’t say what it was, but I took the thought that it was somefin’ for the Guv’nor; for Mr. Irving, sir.”
“Of course.” Stoker nodded understandingly. “So Miss Burton did not appear this morning?”
“No, sir. She ain’t never missed before, and she said as ’ow she’d tell me all about last night’s ‘adventure’—that’s what she called it, sir, an adventure—when she saw me this mornin’.”
“She was most likely delayed in some way, Billy,” I said. “I think it may be a little soon to start worrying.”
“No, sir! . . . Beggin’ your pardon, sir. When she didn’t come to meet me I went ’round to ’er lodgings. Old Mrs. Briggs on West Street. She said as ’ow Nell ’adn’t come ’ome last night. She ’adn’t seen ’ide nor ’air of ’er.”
Stoker glanced at me again then back to the young stagehand. “Is there anyone she might have gone to? Any close friend, or a relative, perhaps?”
Billy Weston shook his head. “She ain’t got no relatives, sir. She’s an orphan, or so she says. And I’m ’er closest friend, so she would o’ come to me, wouldn’t she?”
I could see that Stoker was concerned, but he tried to ease the boy’s mind. “I think you can leave this with us for now, Billy. Mr. Rivers, here, will look into it more thoroughly. I’m sure there’s just some misunderstanding. You let Mr. Rivers know if you hear of anything else, and he, in turn, will get back to you.”
“All right, Billy.” I opened the door and held it as a signal that the boy should now leave. With a last pleading look at both of us, he went out, and I closed the door behind him.
“What do you think, sir?” I asked, taking Billy’s place on the seat in front of Stoker’s desk. “Not very encouraging, is it?”
Stoker shook his great head, the sunlight streaming in through the small window catching the red, along with the silver, in his auburn hair. He sat back and steepled his fingers, his elbows on the arms of his chair.
“There are gangs about the London streets that will abduct a young woman and sell her to traffickers in the white slave trade, Harry. I’m sure you know that. I wouldn’t want to think that a young woman of our Lyceum family had been so interfered with. What do you know of this Nell Burton?”
“Not much, sir,” I said. “She joined us a month or so back, when one of the female extras had to leave because of family problems. Miss Burton had come to London from up north . . .”
“Like so many,” sighed Stoker.
“. . . seeking fame and fortune,” I continued. “She had little experience but seemed to take to the boards very quickly. She’d done a few walk-ons at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham. I think she actually came from Derby; close by there. John Saxon noticed her and drew my attention to her. I was watching Miss Burton with a view to possibly bringing her to your attention at the end of the Hamlet run.”
“Our Mr. Saxon always notices the young ladies.” Stoker pursed his lips and sat in silent thought for a moment. “We cannot afford to lose good young material, Harry.”
“What would you like me to do, sir?”
“You might take a walk around to this Mrs. Briggs and question her, Harry. Young Mr. Weston was obviously too upset to get all available information. See if there is any clue as to where this mysterious assignation was to take place yesterday evening.”
“I know of Mrs. Briggs,” I said. “She runs a respectable boardinghouse used by girls from both here and other theatres in the central London area.”
“You might, then, see if any other of our extras board there. I find it difficult to believe that this Miss Burton knows no one—other than our young stagehand, of course.”
I nodded and then hurried off. At twenty-two, I, Harry Rivers, had been delighted to obtain employment at London’s famous Lyceum Theatre, home of England’s prominent Shakespearean actor Henry Irving. I had dabbled in stagecraft during my education at the Hounslow Masonic Institution for Boys, which I attended courtesy of the Honorable Gregory Moffatt. I should explain that I am not of that class, by any means, but my father, a blacksmith, had done a great deal of work for the Hon. Mr. Moffatt (third son of Baron Runnymede), and that gentleman had looked kindly upon me.
My mother died trying to bring my brother into the world, and my father passed soon after that, so, at the age of fourteen, I was forced to come to London to seek my fortune. After a few rough years as crossing sweeper, errand boy, newspaper seller, and cab driver, I met the owner of the small Novelty Theatre on Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields (he was one of my cab fares), and I obtained the job of theatre doorman—so much preferable to sitting up at the back of a cab in all sorts of weather. When I later heard that Mr. Irving was to take over the running of the Lyceum—a much more prestigious theatre—I applied for a position there. Apparently Mr. Irving had brought over from Ireland a Mr. Abraham Stoker, a theatre critic who had written very favorably of Mr. Irving’s performances in that country. Mr. Stoker became the Lyceum’s business manager, and I became stage manager . . . a job with which I fell in love.
I worked closely with Mr. Stoker and also became a personal assistant to him. I came to admire him a great deal, although even after three years I could still be caught off guard by some of his idiosyncrasies. He was not afraid to display his emotions and, despite a fine business sense backed by years at the best Irish university, was easily swept up by tales of ancient Irish lore and legend. He openly believed in ghosts, sixth sense, and even “the little people,” and spent what spare time he had writing his own stories. I must admit, however, that I would not change my employment for any other.
It didn’t take long to find out that several of the Lyceum’s young ladies boarded with Mrs. Briggs. In fact, Miss Tilly Fairbanks was Nell’s roommate. I found Tilly sitting in the greenroom by herself, studying the Hamlet script. She was young—about five years younger than myself—and not unattractive. Her dark brunette hair reminded me of my inamorata, Jenny Cartwright, though Tilly’s hair was shorter and, at this moment, in some disarray. She sat with the fingers of one hand tugging on a ringlet. For whatever reason I was suddenly conscious of my own carrot red hair.
“Oh, hello, Mr. Rivers,” she said, glancing up. “Just looking over my lines. Sarah Jenkins is off with a sore throat, so I’m doing the Player Queen for a bit.”
“I’m sure you’ll do the part proud, Tilly. I just wanted a quick word with you.”
“Nothing wrong, is there, Mr. Rivers?” She looked worried.
I shook my head. “I hope not. I understand you room with Nell Burton?”
She nodded. “Why d’you ask, Mr. Rivers?”
“Haven’t you heard?” I said. “Nell seems to have disappeared.”
“Disappeared?” she echoed.
“Did she return to your room last night?” I asked. “I understand she went out somewhere in the late evening. What time did she get back?”
Tilly turned very red. She brought her script up to cover the bottom of her face, as though she wished she could hide behind it. There was a long silence before she replied.
“I—I’m sorry, Mr. Rivers. I . . . I mean . . . You see . . .” Then, in a rush, “I didn’t sleep at home last night, Mr. Rivers! I don’t make a habit of it. I’m not a bad girl. It’s just that . . . well, last night me and my young man—Sammy Cooper. You know him. He works the curtains. Well me and him has been stepping out together for some time and . . .”
I held up my hand. “You don’t have to tell me, Tilly. You know as well as I do that you’re on very dangerous ground there. But I’m going to ignore it for now because there are more important things to look at. You are saying, then, that you don’t know when or even if Nell Burton slept in your room?”
She nodded mutely, still clutching the script in front of her.
“It seems unlikely that she was up to the same shenanigans that you were, since it was her young man who reported her missing.” I had a sudden thought and looked hard at Tilly. “By any chance does Nell have more than one young man? Would she be likely to . . .” I didn’t get a chance to finish.
“No!” Tilly sounded shocked and almost dropped her script. “No, Mr. Rivers. Nell is very serious with Billy. She wouldn’t be untrue to him. Her and Billy and me and my Sammy, why, we often go out together. None of us would ever deceive the other.”
“Thank you, Tilly,” I said. “You don’t know, then, where Nell might be?”
She shook her head. I turned to leave.
“Just behave yourself,” I said over my shoulder.
“Yes, Mr. Rivers.”
By rights I should have reported her impropriety to Mr. Stoker, but I decided to overlook it. There were times when I had extremely strong feelings toward my Jenny, but, thankfully, I had so far kept them in check. I could, however, acknowledge and understand such feelings in others. I headed for West Street.
* * *
Jenny Cartwright was a housemaid in the home of the Guv’nor, Mr. Henry Irving. I had met her quite by chance when I had been sent to the residence to collect a book belonging to Mr. Irving. Somehow Jenny and I had taken a shine to each other, and I had, on more than one occasion, met with her on her afternoon off and we had spent a few precious hours together.
As a youngster at school the other boys had teased me about my red hair, calling me “Ginger.” Also, my ears were a little prominent, and I had to endure endless jokes about being cautious in a high wind in case I was lifted off the ground. My freckles did not go unnoticed, either. But I had survived the ragging of my fellow students and found that such idiosyncrasies were not dwelt upon in the adult world. Jenny seemed not to notice them at all, or if she did she was too kind to comment.
I thought her extremely beautiful and had not been slow to tell her so. She had blushed with pleasure and denied the charge, though she was obviously secretly pleased. I looked forward to the coming weekend when we had planned to take Jenny’s aunt Alice to Kew Gardens, now that the weather was a little less cold. Miss Alice Forsyth had raised Jenny when her parents died, and Jenny was very fond of her. Aunt Alice had been instrumental in getting Jenny placed in the Irving household. I had not yet met the lady and looked forward to it. But Sunday was still several days away, and I had work to do.
I focused my attention on the immediate problem, the disappearance of Nell Burton. I approached the front door of Mrs. Briggs’s establishment on West Street. It was a plain-looking house typical of the area. A black-painted wrought-iron fence stood around the basement; the front doorsteps had been scrubbed clean and whitewashed—a good sign of pride of ownership on Mrs. Briggs’s part—and the brass door knocker gleamed in the sunshine that fought its way through the ever-present traces of fog coming off the river. I walked up the steps and knocked.
A tiny, frail-looking lady with wispy gray hair escaping her cap opened the door and appraised me. She wore a high-neck black dress that, although somewhat worn and faded, was obviously clean and smartly pressed. A cameo brooch sat in the center of the neckline; her only adornment. She looked up at me. I am but five feet and six inches of height, so this attested to her slight frame. She squinted slightly as her eyes studied my face. I wondered if she needed spectacles.
“Good morning,” I said, smiling and raising my hat. She did not return the smile. “Mrs. Briggs?” I asked.
“What do you require, young man? I will have no callers for my young ladies at this hour of the day.”
“Oh no! No, Mrs. Briggs, I am not here to call on any of your tenants. At least, not directly.”
“What are you blathering about? Oh, come in! Come in. We can’t have you standing on the doorstep inviting talk from the neighbors. Come on inside and explain yourself.”
She turned and led the way into the house. I followed, looking around in the dark hallway. The walls were vaguely discernible in the dim light, covered with ancient flock wallpaper. There were a number of small colored prints of country scenes in gaudy gilt frames, together with matching framed silhouettes of a man and a woman, and an overlarge etching of a stag at bay. A massive walnut Renaissance Revival hallstand projected from the wall into the hallway and had to be carefully negotiated. It was festooned with ladies’ coats, and its outer arms held an assortment of umbrellas on cast-iron drip pans. Mrs. Briggs hurried on, opening a door and ushering me into the parlor.
The parlor furniture was dark—mahogany and darkened oak; I got the sense that the whole house was dark if not dingy—and overfilled with chairs, tables, and potted plants. I ducked around an aspidistra and found myself facing Mrs. Briggs as she stood in front of the imposing marble fireplace. There was no fire burning in the hearth, but the heavy curtains pulled only slightly apart at the windows seemed to keep out much of the cold. A single gas lamp burned low over the mantel shelf. My eyes were drawn to an ornate clock with two overly pink cherubs supporting it, one on either side, the small hands permanently pointing to two of the clock. The timepiece itself rested between two large glass globes covering dusty and mangy-looking stuffed birds, once colorful.
“Now, young man. Your name and business.”
“Of course.” I fumbled for a calling card but couldn’t find one. “I, er, I am Mr. Harold Rivers, stage manager and assistant to the Lyceum Theatre manager, Mr. Abraham Stoker.”
“I know the gentleman.” She nodded her head. “I have a number of Mr. Stoker’s young ladies who reside here. Have been suffering them for many years now.”
“You have one named Miss Nell Burton,” I said.
“A model young lady . . . or was until today. I do not stand for my young lady tenants who play it fast and loose. She did not return to her room last evening, as was the case with her roommate Miss Fairbanks. I shudder to think where they might have been. This will be their first warning—each young lady receives only three warnings before she finds herself out on the street.”
Mrs. Briggs’s lips were pressed together in a tight, thin line. She may have been small, but she obviously ruled her house with a will of iron.
“Miss Burton apparently is missing,” I informed her. The tight lips remained. “We—Mr. Stoker and myself—have some concern regarding her safety.” The lips relaxed a trifle. “I would be greatly obliged if you would allow me to see her room, in case there be any clue there as to her present whereabouts.”
“Miss Fairbanks . . .” she started to say.
“Her roommate has agreed to it,” I said. “She is as concerned for Miss Burton as are we all.”
It was with grim determination and obvious disapproval that Mrs. Briggs preceded me up the staircase to the second floor, where she selected a key from the large key ring at her waist and unlocked one of the doors on the left.
“I should stay and watch you, Mr. Rivers, but I have work to do. I hold you and Mr. Stoker responsible should anything later be found amiss in this room.”
She looked at me sternly, her eyes still squinting slightly, her head tipped back that she might look me full in the face.
“I thank you, Mrs. Briggs, and I assure you I shall merely look and take note. I will not be removing anything, however slight its value, from the room.”
“Hrrmph!” She snorted and then turned and retraced her steps down to the lower level.
I looked about me. The room was small, with two iron-framed beds side by side filling most of the space. Both beds were neatly made up. A worn wooden chest of drawers stood against the wall at the foot of the beds, and a washstand bearing washbowl and jug was on the adjacent wall, next to the door through which I had entered. Two small, framed watercolor pictures of birds and flowers were hung, one over each bedhead. A tiny window looked out over neighboring narrow backyards, and even with the window closed as it now was, I could detect the faint smell of the privies lining the ends of those yards.
I hesitated a moment, feeling uncomfortable examining the bedroom of two young ladies. But Mr. Stoker had sent me to do a job, and I would not fail him.
I saw that one of the young women had apparently taken off her clothing—in a hurry, I would guess—and simply dropped the garments on the floor. Her underthings were there also, and I was aware of myself blushing as I glimpsed them, although I was alone in the room.
I turned to the chest of drawers and gently opened and closed each drawer, trying not to disturb the intimate apparel within. In one drawer, lying atop the obviously well-worn blouse bodices, was a bundle of letters tied up with a red ribbon. They were addressed to Miss Tilly Fairbanks. There was no sign of any other correspondence; nothing addressed to Miss Nell Burton.
I returned down the stairs and found Mrs. Briggs in her kitchen, stirring the contents of a large cast-iron pot with a wooden spoon. The smell issuing from the pot made my mouth water.
“I like to have a good offering of soup for my girls when they come home,” she said. “Poor twists! A pair of them are only at gaffs, so you know they don’t have much money for eating.”
I began to see a softer side to Mrs. Briggs’s stern exterior.
“What can you tell me about Miss Burton’s coming back from the theatre last night?” I asked.
She stopped her stirring for a moment and screwed up her face in thought. Then she started stirring again. “I remember now. There was a dress—a white dress—that was dropped off here for her yesterday. In the late afternoon. I guessed as how it was for some play your theatre must be doing?”
I shook my head. “Nothing that I am aware of. Who delivered this dress?”
It was her turn to shake her head. “Just some street boy who’d been given a ha’penny to bring it. He didn’t know anything—I asked him.”
Mrs. Briggs was nobody’s fool.
“Oh, and one more thing,” she said. She stopped stirring again and looked at me intensely. “Miss Burton must have changed into the dress right away, when she came back from the theatre, for she came running down the stairs in it and out the door. I had to shout after her to shut the door behind her, but she didn’t hear me. I went to close it and would you believe, there she was getting into a hansom. It must have been waiting for her.”
“Getting into a hansom cab?”
“As I live and breathe.”
I had returned to the Lyceum and reported my findings to Mr. Stoker. I was then approaching my office when I was accosted. It was Edwina Abbott, one of the extras. Miss Abbott was a reliable young actress. She would never rise above bit parts and crowd scenes, and I think she knew it, but she seemed content just to be a part of the theatre and especially one of the greater Lyceum “family,” as both Mr. Stoker and the Guv’nor termed it.
My so-called office had walls on only three sides, the fourth being open to any and all who passed by. In truth, it was no more than a large closet with no door and no privacy. Mr. Stoker was always talking of finding me better quarters, but there was not a great deal of available space in the theatre, especially close to the stage, as I needed to be. I had contemplated taking possession of the properties room and swapping contents, but I realized that the properties needed to be somewhere that could be locked securely. With a sigh—which I invariably gave when considering my office space—I beckoned Miss Abbott to follow me in and find a seat as close to my desk as the piles of assorted props, scripts, set layouts, and books would allow. I turned up the single gas jet that protruded from the back wall, the electrification of the theatre not yet having reached my humble quarters.
“Now, Miss Abbott?” I said, sliding a pile of papers off my chair and sitting. I glanced down at the desktop in front of me to see the cold remains of fish and chips that had been resting there since the previous night. I vaguely remembered abandoning them when some small crisis occurred toward the end of last evening’s performance. I swept the newspaper-wrapped bundle into the rubbish bin.
“Tilly Fairbanks suggested I come to see you, Mr. Rivers.” She spoke hesitantly, obviously unsure as to whether or not she was doing the right thing.
I nodded and tried to look welcoming, even though I was aware of a hundred and one things that cried out for my attention. “My door is always open, Miss Abbott,” I said, and then smiled at the literal meaning of my words.
“It’s the cards, sir.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The cards.” She dug into her reticule and pulled out an ancient deck of playing cards, which she set down on the edge of my desk. “They was given to me by my aunt Jessica, God rest her soul. She had ’em from a French sailor, begging your pardon.”
“Cards? French sailor?” I felt as though I had landed in the middle of a pantomime scene at the Princess’s Theatre.
“They’re tarot cards, Mr. Rivers. Not found a lot on this side of the Channel, as I understand it. My aunt used to say that the Froggies was into them a lot. O’ course, she weren’t really my aunt, you understand. Just took me and my kid sister in when things was rough.”
I held up my hand to signal silence and reached out to take the cards and examine them. They were well-worn, obviously having been used a great deal. One or two were missing corners, and a few were torn, but I recognized them. Tarot cards were used for telling fortunes and—so it was claimed—for seeing into the future. I recalled Mr. Stoker describing them once to Miss Ellen Terry, when she was reading a play by Molière. I didn’t remember much about them except that there were far more of them in a deck than would be found in regular playing cards.
I fanned them and saw mysterious scenes, along with symbols of swords and cups, coins and cudgels. I stopped at one of the more colorful cards depicting a skeleton wielding a scythe and slicing heads that protruded from the ground like so many cabbages. It was titled La Mort. I glanced up at my visitor, but her face was serious, her eyes locked on the pasteboards I handled.
A large moon with a grotesque face looked down on two foxes standing one on either side of a river. An ancient tower rose behind each of the canines, and a crustacean of some sort menaced them from the waters. I studied a harlequin juggling two large coinlike balls embossed with multipointed stars. On one card a hand floated in midair wielding a sword; on another an ancient crone staggered out of a forest weighed down with fagots. A windmill struck by lightning spewed forth the figures of the miller and his wife, and various knights on horseback wielded swords, cudgels, large coins, and goblets.
“What do you want me to do with them?” I asked.
“Nothing. No, Mr. Rivers. I just sometimes read ’em for the girls backstage, when things is quiet. Just funnin’, you know?” She looked anxious.
I nodded for her to continue.
“Well, Tilly said as how Nell has gone missing, and Janet Broad said why didn’t I ask the cards where she might be.”
“You thought they could tell you?” I tried not to sound as incredulous as I felt.
She nodded. “I done a quick reading . . . I’m not good at this. My mum was, God rest her soul. So was my auntie Jessica. You should have seen her. Anyway, I done a five-card spread and the two ending cards was these.” She reached out and took up the deck. Quickly she shuffled through them . . . I could tell she was more familiar with handling them than she was willing to admit. She stopped and put one of the cards down on the desk in front of me, followed by a second. I stared at them.
The first depicted a young woman standing bound and blindfolded in the midst of a large number of swords stuck into the ground. The other card showed a large red heart with three swords sticking through it. Blood dripped from the heart to the ground beneath. Neither of the cards could be viewed as propitious, in my humble opinion, though I knew nothing of tarot card interpretation. I decided to play dumb.
“So what do you see these cards as meaning, Miss Abbott? And how do you attribute whatever it is to our missing Miss Burton?”
Her mouth gaped. “Ain’t it obvious?” she cried, and then cupped a hand to her mouth. “Oh, I beg your pardon, Mr. Rivers. It’s just that . . . well, to someone as reads these cards on a regular basis—well, occasional, p’raps I should say—it’s as though these pasteboards are screaming out to me. That’s why Tilly says I should come and see you.” She was silent a moment, and then, with her face growing red, she reached forward and started gathering up the cards. “I—I’m sorry, Mr. Rivers, sir. I shouldn’t have come and wasted your time. I can see . . .”
“No!” I held up my hand to stop her. “It is I who am sorry, Miss Abbott. Edwina, isn’t it?”
She looked at me from beneath lowered brows and nodded.
“Edwina. You are obviously something of an expert with these cards, compared to myself. I can see that what you have recognized as being represented here is important to you.”
“Nell was our friend, Mr. Rivers.”
“Yes. Yes, I’m sure.” I got to my feet. “Come with me, Edwina. I’d like you to repeat what you have said, and shown, to Mr. Stoker. He is far more attuned to such arcane lore than am I. I think he would find this well worth his attention.”
I took her to Mr. Stoker’s office and tapped on the door.
I eased open the door and peered inside. I was relieved to see that he was alone. I advanced inside, beckoning Miss Abbott to follow me. Stoker raised his eyebrows, slid an account book to one side, and nodded toward a pair of chairs facing his desk. We sat and I quickly explained why we were there.
“May I see this tarot deck?”
Edwina Abbott produced the cards, handed them to me, and I passed them across to Stoker. I watched his face closely as he examined them, looking through them and pausing from time to time to study a particular card more closely.
“These are very old,” he said, without looking up.
“Yes, sir. My old aunt gave ’em to me and she said as how they had belonged to some French lady who had ’em from a sailor.”
Stoker nodded without comment.
“There’s two cards missing,” added Edwina.
He stopped shuffling through the deck and looked sharply at her.
“The Four of Cups and the Nine of Coins.”
He nodded. “Unfortunate but not disastrous.”
After a few more moments of studying the cards, Stoker laid them, faceup, on the desk in front of him and sat back. He steepled his fingers as he now studied the young actress.
“What was this spread you used, Miss Abbott? Just five cards, I understand?”
“Yes, sir.” She seemed to lose some of her nervousness and sat forward on the edge of her seat. “It’s one my auntie showed me for what she called a quick reading. One for the person; one for strength; one for weakness; one for ‘working,’ as she put it; and one for the climax.”
“The climax?” I said.
Stoker nodded. “What the others were leading up to.” He fastened his attention on Edwina. “The first three are immaterial right now. What were the other two?”
“As I showed Mr. Rivers, sir. Number four was the Eight of Swords and number five was the Three of Swords.”
He pursed his lips but said nothing, his eyes returning to the cards.
Edwina looked at me, her eyebrows raised. I tried to indicate that we should wait and see what my boss might say. He finally looked up, first at Edwina and then turned to me.
“This is somewhat disturbing, Harry.”
“It is?” I was surprised.
“Indeed. You did right to bring this to our attention, Miss Abbott. Harry, I want you to get onto this right away. See if you can contact that wretched policeman who kept hanging around us last month. What was his name?”
“Sergeant Bellamy, sir. I’ll track him down. You think this is that serious?”
He did not immediately reply but got to his feet and moved across to remove his topcoat from the mahogany clothes tree by the door. As he struggled into the garment he spoke.
“Thank you, Miss Abbott. We are obliged. You may take your cards—remarkable deck, if I may say so—and return to your duties. It is possible I may have to call upon you in the future.” Edwina took up her cards and, tucking them into her reticule, scampered out of the office. “Forget Bellamy for the moment, Harry. This is urgent. Come with me.”
“I’ll just get my coat,” I said.
“I shall be outside hailing a cab. Don’t dawdle, Harry.”
* * *
As the hansom rattled over the cobblestones, Stoker refreshed my memory on the tarot cards.
“Almost certainly brought into Europe by the Roma—the Gypsies—since the tarot first appeared about the same time as did those nomads. The cards have been known in England since the time of King Edward IV. He, however, forbade the importation of them, and they have ever afterward been difficult to find in these Isles.”
“Why was that, sir?” I asked.
“Why did he forbid their use? I imagine that he felt—as did others, especially leaders of the Church—that they were instruments of the Devil. He was afraid of them.”
“People are always afraid of that which they do not understand, Harry. Remember that. The more you study something, the more you come to understand it, ergo the less you find to fear in it. But the tarot cards are innocuous in and of themselves. They are simply tools. In the right hands they can be valuable . . . and revealing.”
“Revealing, sir? Are you saying that you believe they can show the future?”
“I cannot explain—and I have yet to meet the man who can—exactly how it is that a fall of the cards can indicate all that it does. And yet I have found the tarot to be amazingly accurate in many ways, Harry. Not so much in predicting the future, for the future is not cast in stone, yet able to indicate the forces at work in a given situation . . . the energy that inclines us in various directions. You might do well to peruse what this Madame Blavatsky is promoting in her new Theosophical movement, though her focus is not on the tarot. You might also take a glance at Shelley, Blake, and even Swedenborg.”
I glanced out of the cab. “Where are we going, sir?”
It took me a moment to take in what he said. “Scotland Yard? Why is that?”
“I have grave concern about our missing young lady. Appraising what you gleaned from her landlady, and then considering what was indicated in the tarot by Miss Abbott, I believe it to be vital that we demand immediate action by the Metropolitan Police . . . if it is not already too late.”
“Too late?” Was I missing something?
Stoker continued. “Our Miss Burton was enticed away and instructed to not reveal where she was going. She was provided with a gown—presumably appropriate for a particular occasion; I suspect a ritual of one sort or another—and transported in a cab provided by her abductors.”
“Abductors?” I was unsure of the word’s import.
“Don’t keep repeating what I say, Harry. Although it would appear that Miss Burton left of her own volition, I am of the opinion that she was lured away and for no good purpose. I fear she may be in extreme danger and only pray that we are not too late to rescue her.”
I almost repeated his last few words but managed not to do so. The hansom turned into Scotland Yard, and Stoker thrust coins up through the trapdoor into the cabbie’s hands before leaping from the vehicle and striding ahead of me into the police station.
“Mr. Stoker, as we live and breathe. And Mr. Withers.”
“Rivers,” I corrected. I was surprised to see a familiar figure standing at the far end of the enquiry desk. Sergeant Samuel Charles Bellamy, his beady brown eyes gleaming.
“Our apologies. What brings you gentlemen to Scotland Yard, might we ask? Not another human head rolling out of your scenery, we trust?”
A burly constable seated behind the well-worn counter chuckled behind his copy of the Police Gazette.
“Sergeant Bellamy?” said Stoker. “We had occasion to mention your name less than an hour ago. How fortuitous that you are here at Scotland Yard.”
“Fortuitous indeed, sir.” He inclined his head but continued to stand with his feet apart and with his thumbs tucked into his waistcoat pockets. “And we would make so bold as to correct you and tell you that we are now Inspector Bellamy and have been moved permanently from C Division to the Yard.”
“Well, let’s hope you are up to the task,” said Stoker. Before Bellamy could bristle he added, “We need a competent police official to locate a missing young lady. One whom I very much fear is in imminent danger.”
To his credit, Bellamy extracted his thumbs from his pockets and moved briskly past the end of the counter to usher us down a short corridor and into a small office.
“Please be seated, gentlemen.”
We took the two plain wooden chairs in front of the desk, which the inspector sat behind. I glanced about me and noted the inevitable framed portrait of Her Majesty on the wall behind Bellamy together with a decidedly smaller photograph of the police commissioner, Sir Edmund Henderson.
“Now sir,” said the inspector, addressing Stoker and studiously ignoring me. “Who is this young lady? Let us have the full facts. What crime, exactly, was perpetrated upon her?” He flipped open a notebook that lay on the desk. It looked to me to be the same one he had used in his days as a humble sergeant. As he licked the end of his pencil I got the impression that he was overeager to record details of any improprieties that might have been committed.
“The young lady is missing, Sergeant . . .”
Stoker merely waved his hand. “As yet we are unaware of any harm done to her, but then that is why we are here.”
“We don’t quite under . . .”
“Time is of the essence, man!” snapped my boss. “Every moment that passes increases the possible danger. You must rally your troops—or whatever you have to do—and we must get out after her and find her. I have the strongest feeling that . . .”
“Whoa! Hold on there, sir.” Bellamy held up his hand as though halting traffic. “You have a ‘feeling’? You are unaware of any harm done? You want us to have our men go running off in all directions just on a whim? We don’t think so, sir.”
“A whim? A whim?” Stoker came to his feet, his face red. “You incompetent fool! You are as stupid as you ever were as Sergeant Bellamy! Promotion did not bring brains. Come, Harry!”
He stormed out of the room, leaving Bellamy spluttering. I ran after him.
“So what now, Mr. Stoker?”
I studied my boss’s serious face as we strode along Whitehall. He had been too angry to stop and signal a cab and had muttered something about “walking it off.”
“I’m giving it thought, Harry,” he said, his head down and his stride diminishing so that I might keep up. “I am positive that our Miss Burton is in very real danger and we need to find her as quickly as possible . . . but how? Where did they take her?”
“Perhaps if we could find the cabbie,” I started to say.
Stoker stopped abruptly, causing a tall, thin, military-looking gentleman striding along behind him to almost lose his footing as he avoided running into Stoker’s back. Muttering and glaring at my boss, the colonel—or whatever rank he was—sidestepped neatly and then, dodging around us, slid back into step and continued on along the pavement.
“Well done, Harry. Yes, of course. We have to find that cabbie.”
“There are an awful lot of hansom cabs in the city,” I said. “Talk about your needle in a haystack.”
“But all needles can be traced. Get yourself round to Mrs. Briggs again as quickly as you can. Find out all you can about the hansom that picked up our girl. Did Mrs. Briggs notice anything in particular about the driver? What color was the horse? Anything—anything, Harry—that may help you find that needle! Mrs. Briggs is on West Street, is she not? There is a cab rank on the corner of Monmouth and Long Acre. Enquire there. Ask every cabbie you can find.”
I flagged down a passing hansom and jumped in.
“Don’t worry about me,” said my boss, waving me off. “I have some leads I will follow up myself. Just find that cab driver and discover where he took Miss Burton. Let us pray we are not too late.”
* * *
“Goodness me, Mr. Rivers! It was dark, you understand? Miss Burton had just returned from the theatre, and you know full well when that turns out.”
“But you did see her get into the cab?”
“Yes. Yes, I did.”
“Think, Mrs. Briggs! Please think. Cast your mind back. Miss Burton’s very life may well depend on it! Was there anything, anything at all, that you noticed about the cab or its driver? No matter how small a thing. Anything at all?” I implored.
The old lady pressed her thin lips together and knitted her brow. I waited, holding my breath.
“He was a stocky fellow, the driver,” she said, speaking as the thoughts came to her. I slowly let out my breath, not daring to interrupt her. “Wore a top hat, not like so many of ’em these days as sports a bowler. Oh, and he had near-white sideboards. Bushy muttonchops. Bit old-fashioned now, I suppose. I remember thinking he was getting on a bit to be driving around late at night.”
“Anything about the cab itself, Mrs. Briggs? Or the horse, perhaps?”
“Yes! Yes, of course. As he pulled away the cab passed under that new gaslight they put up last December. We really needed that, I can tell you. Nothing to light the pavement from here to the corner.”
“The horse, Mrs. Briggs?”
“Yes, yes. I was coming to that. A piebald it was. Don’t see many of them pulling cabs. Nearly all black or brown. Occasionally dappled gray. Hardly ever see a piebald.”
“Piebald.” I was delighted. A black-and-white horse was certainly distinctive. “Anything else?”
“No. No.” She shook her head. “No. That was it, Mr. Rivers. Does that help?”
“Oh yes! Yes, thank you, Mrs. Briggs. You’ve been a great help!”
She looked pleased and a tiny smile crept onto the thin lips.
I wasted no time in hurrying off to the corner of the street. I turned right and ran the block to the corner of Long Acre.
There was only one hansom at the rank, waiting for a fare. The driver was a thin fellow with a scraggly, drooping mustache stained from food or beer. He wore a brown bowler hat, the side of it boasting a dent.
“Ev’nin’, sir,” he said when he spied me. “Where to, guv?”
“Not just yet, thank you,” I said. “I’d just like to ask you a couple of questions.”
He looked anxiously about him. “’Ere! Wot’s this then? You a copper? I ain’t done nothin’. Wot you want wif me?”
“It’s all right,” I assured him. “No problem. I just need some information. I need to locate another cabbie.”
“Wot’s wrong wif me, then?”
“No.” I tried to be patient, though I was very much aware of the urgency that Mr. Stoker had placed on the situation. “I’m trying to locate a cabbie who was in this area last night. I wondered if you knew him?” I repeated Mrs. Briggs’s description.
“Piebald ’orse, you say?”
“Was it a green cab?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “I assumed it was black, like so many others.”
He nodded, removed his hat, and scratched the top of his head. “Dark green,” he said, carefully replacing the hat. “Looks black at night. They all do.”
I took his word for it. “You do know the cab, though?”
“Ho, yes. Buster Wilkins, that was. ’E’s that fond of that old nag of ’is. Too old, really, for this lark . . . both the ’orse and old Buster, if you ask me.” He broke into a fit of coughing, and I waited till he finished.
“Where might I find this Buster?” I asked.
He scratched his head again. I wondered if that activated his thinking.
“’E mostly sticks to the Trafalgar Square to Westminister district, I fink. I’m surprised he was up at West Street. Must ’ave been called for, I reckon.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “I believe it was arranged for him to go there.” I had a sudden idea and started to climb into his cab. “Why don’t you take me down to that Westminster area? Perhaps you’ll be able to spot him for me. There’s a half sovereign in it for you if you can help me locate the man.”
He needed no urging. We were soon trotting at a brisk pace around Trafalgar Square and then along Whitehall.
It was an hour later that we spotted our quarry. We had been up and down Whitehall half a dozen times and driven along Victoria Street, Victoria Road, and back along Birdcage Walk. It was as we approached New Palace Yard for the twentieth time—or so it seemed—that my cabbie let out a shout.
“Hellooo there! That’s ’im!” He opened the trap and shouted down to me, nearly deafening me. “There’s old Buster. Just coming off the bridge. Lor’! ’Oo would ’ave thought it? I didn’t know ’e ever went Lambeth side.”
“Can we stop him?” I asked. “I have to question him.”
“You leave it to me, guv. I’ll stop the old nag.”
He spun the hansom around in a tight circle, causing cries and shouts, curses and blasphemy. Cutting across a line of traffic going in the opposite direction, he hauled his own horse to a stop only feet in front of the primly trotting piebald as it came off the Westminster Bridge. The other cab’s driver—whom I recognized from Mrs. Briggs’s description—waved his whip and shouted at my driver, bringing the dark green hansom to a halt half on and half off the pavement.
I jumped out and ran toward the old cabbie in the top hat.
“’Ere! Wot about my fare . . . and the sovereign as you promised?” The driver who had brought me there sounded understandably angry.
“Hold on just a minute,” I shouted over my shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”
There was no passenger in the green cab, and I jumped up on the step in order to be closer to this Buster Wilkins.
“I would have stopped, if all you wanted was to change cabs,” said the old man, eyes wide in astonishment. “No need to cause a barney right outside the Palace of Westminister!”
“This is an emergency,” I said, trying to sound official. It wasn’t hard to mimic the manner and inflections of Sergeant-now-Inspector Bellamy. I quickly explained to the flustered old man what I needed to know. Where had he taken the young lady he had picked up on West Street late the previous evening? He remembered her quite well.
“Pretty young thing,” he said. “In a white gown. Thought she must be going to some party. Lots of them debitats go running off to ’em, you know. Bit early in the season, though, I thought.”
“Do you remember where you took her?” I asked.
“’Course I do! I’m a cabbie, hain’t I? I allus remember me fares.”
“Can you take me there . . . now?”
“Reckon so,” he said. “Mind you, it weren’t nothin’ like I was hexpectin’. Not ’xactly a fancy house.”
“No matter,” I said. “Wherever it was, I want to go there. Wait just one moment.”
I jumped down and returned to my first cab. I held up two sovereigns. “Here, my good man. The first is for your excellent tracking. The second is for my fare plus a second job I have for you.”
He bit into the sovereigns to be sure they were real and then looked at me all attention.
“Go as fast as you can—without causing any accidents—to the Lyceum Theatre. Ask for Mr. Abraham Stoker and bring him to this address.” I then shouted across to old Buster. “Where is it we are going?”
“Down by the river,” he called back. “It’s off the Strand, between Duchy Wharf and Savoy Wharf. A big old warehouse right on the water. Tell ’im to turn down Savoy Street and then make a right on the first wharf.”
“Did you get that?” I asked.
The cabbie nodded.
I was soon in the green cab, behind the piebald as it plodded along Charing Cross and turned onto the Strand. I several times urged Buster Wilkins to make more speed, but it seemed that was more than his old horse was capable of doing. I bided my time, tapping my foot on the floor of the hansom. At this rate, Mr. Stoker would get there before me!
Eventually, after what seemed like an hour or more, though was probably considerably less than that, we turned down a narrow cobblestone lane. I could see ahead of me the masts of a number of ships, together with the red sail of a Thames sailing barge, moving majestically downriver. At the Duchy Wharf we turned and squeezed between large bails stacked ready for moving into one of the many warehouses. Mr. Wilkins brought the cab to a stop outside a dilapidated building that abutted the side of the wharf and that stretched down and out over the water itself. At the opposite end of the wharf the dark shape of Waterloo Bridge towered over everything, stretching off into the mist that rose from the murky waters.
“’Ere we are, guv. Made good time, I reckon.”
I was not about to argue.
“This is where you brought the girl last evening?”
He nodded. “Pretty little thing, all in ’er white gown and all. Wot’s going on ’ere, then?”
“Did she go into the building?” I asked, ignoring his question.
“That she did, sir. Broke into a bit of a run, too. Seemed real eager to get in there.”
“Was there anyone to meet her here?”
Excerpted from "Dead for a Spell"
Copyright © 2014 Raymond Buckland.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Cursed in the Act
“Buckland brings nineteenth-century London to life with this tale of treachery and supernatural doings set in the fascinating world of the theater. Harry Rivers is a delightful foil for his brilliant boss, Bram Stoker, as they unravel the plot behind the mysterious accidents and deaths plaguing the famous Lyceum Theater.”—Victoria Thompson, national bestselling author of Murder in Murray Hill
“Raymond Buckland perfectly captures the feel of Victorian London in this atmospheric and suspenseful novel. A terrific read.”—Rhys Bowen, USA Today bestselling author of the Royal Spyness and Molly Murphy Mysteries
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Started out with promise but became tedious with a simplistic protagonist leading the way instead of Bram Stoker or Henry Irving. Vilifying an American as the coarse money grubbing theatre manager did not help. Perhaps the author should have read up on the Golden Dawn cult, alive and well during this time. Disappointing.