In the first two books of his acclaimed Christopher Marlowe Cobb series, The Hot Country and The Star of Istanbul, Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler captured the hearts of historical crime fiction fans with the artfulness of his World War I settings and his charismatic leading man, a Chicago journalist recruited by American intelligence.
In The Empire of Night, it is 1915, and President Woodrow Wilson is still assessing the war's threat to the United States. After proving himself during the Lusitania mission, Kit is now a full-blown spy, working undercover in a castle on the Kentish coast owned by a suspected British government mole named Sir Albert Stockman. And Kit is again thrown together with a female spyhis own mother, the beautiful and mercurial Isabel Cobb, who also happens to be a world-famous stage actress. Starring in a touring production of Hamlet, Isabel's offstage role is to keep tabs on the supposed mole, an ardent fan of hers, while Kit tries to figure out Stockman's secret agenda. Following his mother and her escort from the relative safety of Britain into the lion's den of Berlin, Kit must remain in character, even under the very nose of the Kaiser.
About the Author
Robert Olen Butler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of over a dozen novels, including Hell, A Small Hotel, and two previous installments of the Christopher Marlowe Cobb series, The Hot Country and The Star of Istanbul. He is also the author of six short collections and a book on the creative process, From Where You Dream. He has twice won a National Magazine Award in Fiction and received the 2013 F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.
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I know a stage-door Johnny when I see one, and I know a tough guy. This was no Johnny. I had my reasons not to look at the facade of the Duke of York's and perhaps that's how I came to notice him down the alleyway on the south side of the theater. The midsummer's late sunlight was almost gone and the play-going crowd was hubbubbing at the front doors, and here was this lurker in the shadows, around the corner, on the way to where only the company of actors was supposed to go. He'd crammed a bouncer's body into a three-piece serge and his trilby hat was pulled down and tipped forward.
I gave off pretty much the same impression, I realized, but I wouldn't want to see somebody like me down this alley either. He was turned sideways and looking in my direction, probably thinking similar thoughts.
There was nothing to do about it. Sniffing around on the sly for my government while still trying to more or less sniff the same way for my newspaper had made me excessively suspicious of my fellow man. I would have been a busy guy indeed if I'd tried to deal with every mug who put me on edge.
The trilby and I stared at each other for a long moment, and then he broke the gaze and slid away down the alley, fading into the shadows. I shrugged him off and figured it was time to go to my seat. Which meant I had to face the wired sign thrusting out over the Duke of York's portico. In my coat pocket was a ticket for the front row of the stalls, so I had to deal with this.
The theater event of the decade, for a limited run only, was ringed in electric lights: Isabel Cobb is Hamlet.
My fifty-six-year-old mother.
When this ticket showed up on a bellhop tray at my hotel without a note, it took me by surprise. As close as I'd been to the theater all my life, I'd been unaware that the theatrical event of the decade was about to happen in London, much less that it involved my mother. I hadn't heard from or about her for fifteen months. A couple of years ago she retired from the legitimate theater, refusing to carry on in a profession that no longer let her pretend she was a twenty-year-old beauty. She was still pretty much a beauty. But she wasn't Juliet anymore. Or even Kate in Shrew, which an audience in Memphis finally, infamously, made clear enough to her, summer before last.
There would be no older-woman roles for her, by god. She would rather leave it all behind. But here was a clever way around that problem. She was playing the most famous man in the history of the stage. A young man, even.
Under the portico now, I found myself on the edge of a gaggle of shirtwaisted women, talking low among themselves, a few with a bit of purple, green, and white ribbon pinned near the heart. Suffragettes, their focus shifted by the war. Instead of marching and chaining themselves to railings, they were starting to drive trams and buses and work in factories. Some of these women near me even gave off a whiff of sulfur from a munitions plant, their hands and faces beginning to turn faintly yellow from the chemicals.
As we pressed together through the doors and into the foyer, my mother's name floated ardently out of these voices. Their new exemplar. She was to be a man. To be and not to be, of course. But tonight a man.
I sat on the right end of the first row, very near to her as she came downstage, alone and soliloquizing, wishing that her too too sallied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into dew. I was trying hard to relinquish myself to the illusion of the stage, trying to forget who, in life, this was before me.
To my surprise, this was not difficult. Isabel Cobb was indeed a man. She was a small and slim Prince Hamlet, her hair cut shoulder length and died dark blond and worn loose and wavy, as a young man of the time might, being hatless in distracted grief, and though my mind knew how tightly my mother was wrapped inside her black doublet and though I recognized her voice, which was always low and a little husky even as a woman, and though I recognized those vast, dark eyes as the maternal origin of my own, she convinced me.
And I wondered: did she convince herself? Perhaps. I heard no tang of irony in her voice as she, being a man, a son, railed against a mother's hasty sexuality. And though this Hamlet before me was believably his own man, he and his qualms reminded me of my mother. Not that I shared the prince's vehemence. But as he rolled the word "frailty" in his mouth like an overripe grape and then named it "woman," stirring the suffragettes in the crowd to a titter, I stopped seeing the play. I lifted my eyes from Hamlet's indictment of his mother and looked up, far up into the fly galleries — uniquely visible to the residents of the front row — and to the catwalk there, its pin rail wrapped with thick hemp ropes. The catwalk was empty and my mind lifted much farther than the flies: I stood outside a room at the Gilsey House in New York. Though it could have been a room in any of a hundred hotels or boarding-houses around the corner from a hundred theaters in a hundred cities on the headliner circuit, where one of the great stars of the American stage and her son lived while she worked. The star was my mother, and she was my father too, my Gertrude and King Hamlet both, though my actual father was no king, was not even a ghost, was an unknown to me, to this very day. But what son needed a father with a mother who could convincingly become anyone?
This flash of memory, me standing in the hushed and carpeted hallway of New York's Gilsey House, could have been any from a multitude of memories of my childhood or adolescence in any of those other hotels, but in the front row of the Duke of York's it was the Gilsey and I'd just turned thirteen and my cheek was still damp from her kiss and she expected me, as always, to understand that she was about to shut the door in my face and send me away — it had been thus for as long as I could remember — I was much younger than this when I'd first been cooingly sent away from her door — and at the Gilsey House her leading man had pitched in, had given me a wink and a nod and a Good lad, and her play — what was it? a Clyde Fitch, perhaps — had run a tryout month in Boston where I'd been bid a similar affectionate adieu in the hallway outside a room in the Hotel Touraine with a different leading man, and I liked this Boston guy okay, and I thought he and I would have this understanding for as long as the play ran, which everyone hoped would be at least a year in New York. But the producer canned him before the play left Beantown, and this guy at the Gilsey was a new wink and a new nod. My mother always seemed to have a hasty hankering for her leading men. And I always seemed to be seeing them off together at a hotel door and then turning and walking away. Having quickly learned not to linger, not to listen.
All this ran quickly and hotly and stupidly in me from the front row of the Duke of York's, so it took me a moment to realize what I was looking at. The guy from the alley was on the catwalk. Once I focused on him, I could picture the last few moments. He'd eased out slow to a place at the rail. And now he squared around to look down to the stage where Hamlet was finishing his soliloquy, bidding his heart to break, and this guy had a real intense interest in this Hamlet, who was my mother.
I had a real intense interest in him. I concentrated on his face as he watched Hamlet greet Ophelia with feigned madness. I wanted to read his eyes, but they were a little too far away, and I wasn't looking straight into them. But the stillness of him, the casual privilege of his pose, made them seem hard, as insolently hard as his stare from the alleyway. Shakespeare and Isabel Cobb faded into a buzz in my head as I focused on this man and on my instinct that he was up to no good.
And then he turned his attention to me, casually, as if he'd known I was there all long.
We had a second extended face-off.
I was right about his eyes. They seemed dead, these eyes. As dead as a bullet casing.
He returned his gaze to my mother.
I was tempted to slip from my seat — right that moment, with Hamlet tormenting the girl he loved — and go through the stage access door into the wings and find my way up to the flies.
And then do what?
Cool off now, I told myself. For weeks I'd been sitting in a London hotel room preparing for the next assignment. Necessarily so. But I'd been idle for too long. This guy reminded me what my body had been trained for and primed for. Which, however, certainly hadn't been to cause a public ruckus over some lug because I didn't like his looks or his sneaking around.
I lowered my face. I concentrated on Hamlet advising his girl to be off to a nunnery and then making a flourish of an exit. A few moments later, with Ophelia still boohooing about her boyfriend's madness, I looked up once more into the flies.
He was gone.
I let it go.
At the first intermission, after Hamlet vowed to catch the conscience of the king, I went out of the theater and down to the side alley and smoked a cigarette there, watching the shadows, waiting for a tough guy in a trilby. Nothing doing.
Back in the theater, through to the next curtain, I kept a frequent but fleeting eye on the flies. No sign of him, and now Hamlet was swearing that his thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth. At the beginning of the act I'd have embraced that recommendation. As the curtain came down for the second intermission, I'd finally been able to drift in the other direction. So I went out and smoked another Fatima and kept my back to the suffragette chatter nearby on the sidewalk and thought about how my mother was indeed Hamlet, as it said rimmed in electric light above my head, and she was a good one, neatly balancing the classic introspective inaction with the strength to kill.
Inside the theater once more, she held my undivided attention through to the prince's last words — the rest is silence — and in the script there is but a single word of stage direction: Dies. For most actors who have taken on Hamlet, the rest is not silence. The rattling or sighing or moaning or gasping are considered by the usual tribe of actors to be the sweet dessert to a long night of emoting. I feared for my mother now, in spite of the surprising subtlety of her performance so far, feared for her excesses. And she surprised me once more by dying with simply an exquisite lifting of the face to the spotlight and a closing of the eyes and, thereby, an ineffably rendered release of spirit.
I admired her performance, but I did not like to witness this, in much the same way as I did not like her closing a hotel room door upon me. I felt she had left me forever. And with her death upon my mind — for it was hers as well as Hamlet's that I was thrumming to — I lifted my own face once more, to the flies.
And there he was. He was watching once again at the railing, and as my mother played at death he leaned toward her and his jacket gaped briefly and showed a holstered pistol on his left side. I wished ardently that I was carrying my own.
From the early days of my reporting career I got close to a fair number of criminals. Tough guys, all of them. Tempered-steel tough. But I'd heard a number of them talk about their mothers, think about their mothers, and inevitably these tough guys turned into simpering idiots of a variety of sorts, from weak to reckless.
So it was that even as I wished I had my own pistol with me I was grateful I didn't. I felt trigger-itchy at that moment and it was possible my hand would have drawn my Mauser and would have pushed the safety button and would have waited for the slightest movement of this lug's right hand toward his pistol, with the wrong kind of look on his face, and I would have shot him. Maybe not aiming to kill. Maybe just to disable that right arm.
Without this option, however, I clearly understood that shooting him would have been the wrong thing to do. At least till his pistol was out and coming to bear on her. And then I would have simply killed him.CHAPTER 2
As it was, he didn't do anything but watch for the last few moments of the play. Then the curtain fell, and when it rose and the calls began, he was gone for good.
The audience clapped loudly and the rest of the cast came and bowed and lined up on the sides and they joined the applause as my mother appeared. She bounded downstage center and the women in shirtwaists and suffragette ribbons all stood up and cried, "Bravo! Bravo!" and my mother bowed deeply to them as a man and then she straightened and flounced her hair and she curtsied as a woman. The suffragettes cried, "Brava! Brava!"
All the while, the rest of the viewers were applauding loudly, some of them rising to their feet as well. As did I. My mother did not look my way.
A boy brought roses from the wings.
I'd seen bigger ovations for my mother, but the few actresses who'd done Hamlet before had been pilloried in the press and heckled from the cheap seats. I hadn't read her reviews, but I heard not a single rude sound from this audience, and that seemed a triumph to me.
I lingered to let the crowd murmur its way out of the auditorium after Mother had finally stopped taking bows and the house lights had come on. Then I crossed before the front row. But instead of going left, up the aisle to the exit doors, I went to the right, up the steps and through the stage access door and into the wings with its smells of greasepaint and sweat and dust burning on the electric stage lights. The actors had all vanished, and squaring around before me was a lanky man in shirt sleeves and bow tie. The stage manager, I assumed.
I was ready to explain myself to him, why I felt privileged to go through an unauthorized door and head straight to the dressing rooms, but he immediately said, "Mr. Cobb."
"Yes," I said.
"Would you like to see your mother?"
"This way." He turned on his heel to lead me toward a door at the back wall.
I stepped up quickly to walk beside him.
"There was a man with a gun up on your fly floor," I said. "Are you surprised?"
He stopped. He turned to me.
"A gun?" he said.
"Inside his coat."
"Yes," he said. "I'm surprised."
"Do you know who he might have been?" I asked.
The stage manager hesitated at this. He was thinking in ways that I could not clearly interpret. Then he said, "Not if he was in my flies."
"And if he hadn't gotten that far?"
"Your mother has fans."
This was no fan.
He turned and moved on. "Please follow me," he said.
Something was odd here, but I didn't push the point.
As we passed through the doorway at the back of the stage wings, I said, "How did you know me?"
"Your mother has a picture of you in her dressing room."
This didn't surprise me.
I followed him along a short passageway and we cut back at the next turning and entered an enclosed staircase.
Her dressing room was on the second floor. The door was ajar and emitting female laughter.
The stage manager knocked and the laughter faded.
"Prithee show thyself," my mother called out, using the lowest Hamlet register of her voice.
More female laughter.
The stage manager leaned his head past the edge of the door to look in. "Your son," he said.
I did not hear her reply, if she made one. Perhaps she gestured. The stage manager pulled back at once and opened the door and I stepped in.
She sat with her back to her makeup mirror, still in her costume of trunk hose and doublet, the doublet unbuttoned, however, showing a finely embroidered lace blouse beneath, straight from a Mayfair shop no doubt, her own private joke throughout the night's portrayal of Hamlet, a secret assertion of her modern womanhood. She was flanked by four suffragettes, two on each side, their uniform dark skirts and white shirtwaists making them look like a ladies string quartet about to go off to play in a palm court at a local hotel.
I stopped a single pace into the room, my hat in my hand. My mother rose. Quite formally, even solemnly. Then she took a step forward and opened her arms. "My darling Kit," she said.
I came to her and we hugged and she smelled of greasepaint and mothball camphor and she felt all bones and sinew inside her man's clothes.
"Isn't he handsome, my dears?" she said.
The women simply made little muttering sounds in response, ready for the vote but not for boldly voicing the sort of sentiments my mother was challenging them to have.
I focused on her suffragettes, as my mother resisted my incipient withdrawal from her arms, assessing them as she would have them assess me.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Empire of Night"
Copyright © 2014 Robert Olen Butler.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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