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MISS SMITH & THE DEVIL’S LIBRARY
Yes, I know, the original publication date has come and gone. The delays were beyond my control. However, I have some good news for those who’ve been waiting ever-so-patiently:  I’ve been assured that Miss Smith & the Devil’s Library will be published in August, which is just a couple of months away. Yay! As soon as it becomes available, I’ll post an update here.

This is an exciting, action packed, thrill a minute adventure novel, if I do say so myself. And it’s the first novel in what I hope will be a series to remember, so be sure to get your copy (and hey, books make great gifts, too, hint hint). 🙂

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MISS SMITH & THE DEVIL’S LIBRARY
Published by PD Publishing – 2010

“Every adventure begins with a single step…and a loaded revolver.”

London 1890 –  Held at bay by an armed and desperate madman, librarian Felicity Smith thinks her troubles are over when she is saved by the enigmatic Minerva Walcott, but within minutes of their meeting, she is drugged, kidnapped, and whisked away from London to a strange house where she learns about a stolen book of religious prophecy and the cult led by a charismatic woman who will stop at nothing to get it, including murder. To save her missing father’s life, Felicity crosses the Continent with Minerva, following a string of clues to Edinburgh and Prague in the hope she will find the Maiden Prophecy before the killers hot on her trail catch up. Despite being stalked underground by a hunting pack, shot at, abducted, chased, almost losing her life time and time again, Felicity is beginning to suspect the biggest danger comes from Minerva Walcott herself.

A rollicking, fast-paced adventure filled with twists, turns, action and suspense!
Nene says: “I set out to create a page-turner, and I’m pretty sure I succeeded. I enjoyed the heck out of creating Felicity Smith – she’s the kind of woman I’d love to be if I lived in the Victorian era.”

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CHAPTER ONE
“Give Me the Pomegranate Wine!”

The William R. Stallybrass Memorial Library
St. James’s Street, London, England
1890

At such moments, Miss Felicity Smith cursed the interest in antiquarian books that had led to her current employment. Most days, attending the absent-minded scholars who drifted into the Stallybrass library required an endless supply of patience, and an equally endless supply of handkerchiefs (for mopping up spilled ink, as well as smeared butter and bread crumbs from surreptitious luncheons). Today, however, the challenge was greater than usual.

Held by a gentleman dressed in a tailored suit, the revolver muzzle pointed at her head seemed as large as a cannon’s bore. Felicity straightened her spine, wincing as the vertebrae crackled. She had been trying to reason with this madman for ten minutes at least, and her first fear had long given way to irritation.

“I want that book, damn you!” the gentleman insisted.

“And I shall tell you once again,” Felicity replied, schooling her features to maintain a librarian’s stern mask, “as I have done several times already, this is not a public house, sir. Pray moderate the volume of your voice, and mind your language. There is a lady present.”

His hand trembled, as did the revolver, but only for a split-second before the trembling ceased. “You’re being deliberately difficult,” he said, flushing with anger. “I was told The Pomegranate Wine of Inherkhawy is here, at this library, and I will have it! Give it to me! Give me the Pomegranate Wine! Are you not in possession of your wits, woman? I have a weapon! If you want to live, give me what I want, or I will shoot you where you stand!”

Bristling, Felicity suppressed the desire to box his ears. The man acted like a spoiled petulant child denied a sweet. Had he stamped his foot and burst into tears, the resemblance would have been perfect. “Were you in possession of your wits, my good man,” she said with exaggerated patience, “you would have told me the title of the book you desire as soon as you came into the library, rather than stand there blustering in such a ridiculous fashion.”

“Just give me the book!” he demanded.

“I cannot.”

He seemed astonished. “You defy me?”

“This is a private lending library. The Pomegranate Wine of Inherkhawy has been lent to one of our subscribers,” Felicity took great pleasure in telling him. “It is due to be returned in a fortnight.”

His mouth worked but no sound emerged. At last, he gulped air, his throat working, gazing around the room as if seeking a more helpful assistant. There was no one else, Felicity could have told him. The other librarian—seventy years old, half-deaf, half-blind and over fond of cherry brandy—was no doubt napping in his office following his usual mid-morning tipple. “Get it back,” the gentleman ordered after a moment, looking pleased by the idea. “Yes, you can get the book back. I’ll wait. It can’t be long.”

“Allow me to explain a simple fact which seems to have escaped you,” Felicity snapped, tilting her chin to its most imperious angle. “A firearm is not a magic wand. You cannot simply wave it about and expect your wishes to be fulfilled. The book is not here. It has been lent. I cannot simply ‘get it back.’ That is not the way the Stallybrass library serves its subscribers..”

“I’m not afraid to shoot you,” he said, gesturing with the revolver.

“So I gathered.” Felicity did not mean to sound quite so dry.

. Instantly, his expression turned to stone, as if she had accused him of cowardice. “I survived the march to Kandahar in ’80 with General Roberts, you know.” The last was spoken with a fleeting air of pride.

“Ah, an Army officer,” Felicity said, taking a closer look at him. The gentleman was well-groomed, freshly shaved apart from the dark moustache that smothered his upper lip. The suit made of dark blue superfine bore the unmistakable perfection of Saville Row tailoring. His hair pomade smelled of sandalwood, the fragrance clashing with the gin-and-tonic scenting his breath. He seemed little different from the normal London boulevardier, likely a younger son of the peerage, moneyed and idle. Lavender gloves covered his hands, but his complexion did seem rather swarthy for an Englishman. The ruining effect of a tropical sun, she decided, that even a decade home had failed to fully heal.

“85th King’s Light Infantry,” he said. “Captain Montgomery Hamilton, if you’ll pardon the impertinence of introducing myself,” he added with a slight sneer.

“The ‘Young Bucks,’” Felicity said, recalling the regiment’s nickname.

“Why, yes!” Hamilton was too surprised to maintain a threatening air. His manner changed, as if they were exchanging polite chit-chat at a garden party given by a mutual acquaintance. “Do you have a brother, madam, or was it your father…?”

“My uncle commanded a company of Bengal sappers before his retirement.”

Hamilton paused to think. “Not Colonel Harland Smith?” he asked.

“The same,” Felicity replied, bemused by the sudden switch in his attitude.

“The officers used to call him Old Deuteronomy, you know, on account of his beard,” Hamilton said, giving her a small but genuine smile. “Fell below the bottom of his waistcoat, it did, astonishingly thick and luxurious. His orderly combed it out every morning. The wogs thought it brought them luck. Practically a separate entity, that beard. Very Biblical.”

“So I gathered when last I saw Uncle Harland, who retired to Sussex to keep bees. The famous beard is now a veritable hedge that has swallowed his face from eyebrows to chin, much to my Aunt Dorcas’s disgust.” Felicity attempted to return his smile but her face felt stiff, and all she could manage was a grimace. “Now that we know one another better, Captain Hamilton, perhaps you’ll be good enough to lower your weapon.”

“Not until I have that book, Miss Smith.” The friendliness melted away, leaving him resolute. “I must have it. If the volume is not here, tell me where it may be found.”

“Captain, I refuse to give you confidential information regarding our subscribers!” Felicity stood firm. She refused to set Hamilton upon an innocent person. Perhaps if she gave him an excuse to leave, he would go away, allowing her time to inform the authorities. “I can alert you when the book becomes available,” she offered. “You are not a subscriber, but as a favor I will grant you access during regular business hours to study the Pomegranate Wine of Inherkhawy, and you may even use my own office for privacy if you wish.”

“You don’t know what it’s been like, this hell, this awful living death,” Hamilton said, looking haunted. The revolver began trembling again. Felicity tried not to look at it. “The doctor said it will make me mad,” he continued. “The disease will make me mad, then I’ll rot and I’ll die, Jesus help me.” He let out a sound like a sob.

“What disease?” Felicity asked in bewilderment. “And what does Pomegranate Wine have to do with it?”

“It’s the cure, damn you.”

“The cure for what disease? Come, sir,” she added when Hamilton shook his head, “tell me. Perhaps I can suggest a different book to suit your purpose.” That would do as well, she thought. Anything to make this madman leave the library before poor addled Mr. Ludwell woke from his nap and came blundering into the scene.

Hamilton hesitated, finally bursting out, “The French disease, madam!”

“Cholera?” she asked, still groping for his meaning. “Measles? Influenza?”

“No, the Great Pox,” he said bitterly. “An infection I got from a Haymarket whore, damn her, and damn you, too.” His finger tightened on the trigger. At that moment, Felicity believed he might shoot. She held her breath until he lowered the revolver. “The whore temped me,” he whispered. “Tempted me with her eyes and her body.”

Understanding dawned. Given his earlier comment about rot and insanity, she ought to have known his ailment was syphilis, which also turned its sufferers violent in the later stage. As an unmarried woman, Felicity supposed she should have no knowledge about such immoral things as venereal disease and prostitution, but curiosity and a catholic taste in books had led her to read some very enlightening literature published by the Reform House for Fallen Women around the corner. The illustrations were particularly eye-opening.

“You understand now, don’t you?” Hamilton pleaded. “It isn’t my fault. The whore tempted me. I was told by a friend I’ll find the cure within the book’s pages, so you see I must have it. I must! If you don’t give it to me, you’ll be guilty of murder.”

Caught by the remembrance of an intriguing illustration in a Reform House pamphlet on marital relations—the positions of the figures seemed ambitious at best, not to mention somewhat ridiculous—her mind had wandered. However, this patently absurd assertion by Hamilton recaptured her attention in a way the revolver could not. “Captain, I assure you Pomegranate Wine is a collection of Egyptian love poetry written by an Eighteenth Dynasty court harpist, translated into German and English by Dr. A.B. Liebing in 1872,” she said crisply. “How can poetry possibly provide a cure for your illness?”

He turned a sickly shade of grey. “Love poetry?”

“Yes.”

“Not a book of ancient medical cures?”

“Not at all,” Felicity said, reaching over to pat his arm. She went on, almost sorry for the man, “Your friend has deceived you, either willingly or through error.”

“But Eddie told me!” Hamilton cried in disbelief.

Felicity sighed. “You can no more expect a cure for syph… er, your unfortunate affliction from Pomegranate Wine, sir, than to find a discourse on Dr. Fordyce’s sermons for young ladies in a copy of Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafzawi’s The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight.” She had tried to read Sir Richard Burton’s translation, but found the text far too florid. “Perhaps your friend meant you to consult the Ebers Papyrus, which is an ancient Egyptian medical text. It can be found, I believe, in the University of Leipzig’s collection.”

Hamilton’s shoulders slumped. He wiped the palm of his free hand across his sweaty forehead. “You’re lying,” he said, clearly attempting to sound more confident than he felt. The weakness in his voice gave the effort away. “I don’t believe you.”

“Nevertheless, I’ve spoken nothing only the truth,” Felicity said. Sugar-coating unpleasant facts did no good, in her opinion. Pretty lies and sympathy would not help Hamilton, and it was high time this farce ended. It was nearing eleven o’clock, and she expected the postman to make the second morning delivery any moment. “Your disbelief changes nothing,” she continued. “You will find no magical cure here. I suggest you return to your doctor’s surgery and do as he tells you. That is your best course of action.”

“Liar!” Hamilton sobbed, leveling the revolver at her. “You’re a damned liar and a…”

Felicity never learned what else she was, for at that moment a woman appeared behind Hamilton, rapping him smartly on his head with a walking cane. He dropped without a sound, the revolver skidding across the floorboards to disappear beneath a bookcase.

The unexpected turn of events rooted Felicity to the spot. Her astonished gaze traveled from the unconscious man sprawled near the Astronomy section to the woman standing over him. The stranger owned a face too sharp-boned for beauty, Felicity thought. A generous mouth was her best feature. Dark blonde hair was pulled into a simple chignon. She wore a violet silk dress, the sort of garment easily purchased prêt-a-porter at any London department store. Keen blue eyes returned Felicity’s stare, and Felicity tried to suppress a sudden blush.

“Forgive me,” the woman said, taking a step forward and politely offered a gloved hand. “Miss Minerva Walcott, madam, how d’you do? When I came inside, I noticed the gentleman was threatening you, and took the liberty of intervening.”

Felicity murmured her own name, shaking Minerva’s hand. She was astonished by the woman’s bold action. Most ladies would have fainted, screamed themselves hoarse or run away. Hearing a groan, she bent to check if Hamilton had roused. He remained unconscious, but Felicity thought she had better turn him over to the authorities as soon as possible. “Thank you,” she said to Minerva. “I appreciate your assistance. It was quite opportune.”

“You are welcome, Miss Smith.”

To her chagrin, Felicity realized she had begun patting her hair to check for loose pins, and made herself to stop. This was no time to preen. “I suppose we had better summon a constable to deal with Captain Hamilton. He’s quite mad, I’m afraid.”

Minerva’s eyebrow twitched upward. “Well, that explains why he threatened to shoot such a perfectly charming lady. Are you hurt at all?” she asked, opening the beaded reticule hanging from her wrist.

It was Minerva who demonstrated charm, Felicity decided, her cheeks growing warm under that steady blue-eyed regard. “I’m unharmed, I assure you,” she replied, waving aside the bottle of smelling salts Minerva offered.

“Shall we step outside and see if a constable is in the immediate vicinity? I will stay with you, if you don’t mind,” Minerva said, returning the bottle to her reticule.

“I will be grateful for the company.” Despite the calm façade she had maintained for Hamilton’s benefit, Felicity’s nerves were frazzled. Taking as deep a breath as her corset allowed, she led Minerva through the library. As they paced toward the door, she became aware of Minerva’s scrutiny, and knew how she must appear: her cursed ungovernable chestnut curls springing out of their restraining pins in messy corkscrews; her oval face, too pale, too bland to be interesting; the snuff-brown dress she wore at least three years out of date. Felicity found herself wishing she had chosen the newer pink gown that morning, which might at least have lent a touch of color to her countenance.

“Your father is Professor Rowland Smith, is he not?” Minerva asked suddenly.

“Yes,” Felicity answered with some surprise. “Do you know him?”

“By reputation only. He was a professor at Oxford, and now collects books, I believe.”

“Father is always hunting rare volumes.”

“Would he be here, by any chance? Perhaps I’m being forward, Miss Smith, but I appreciate an introduction. My brother was a pupil of Professor Rowland’s,” Minerva explained, “and I have often wished for the opportunity to thank him.”

“I regret Father isn’t in England at the moment,” Felicity replied “He’s in Buda-Pesth negotiating the purchase of a 1588 second edition of Maestlin’s Epitomie Astronomiae. I’m afraid he’s often away on business.”

Minerva’s glance was sympathetic. “His absences must be very trying for you.”

“I enjoy my work in the library, Miss Walcott. Father’s trips abroad do not inconvenience me in the slightest.” Felicity paused at a small table near the entrance to put on her brown felt hat, tying the ribbon under her chin. A mirror hung on the wall next to the brass plaque announcing the library’s opening hours, but she did not look into it. Telling herself that vanity was unbecoming in a spinster, Felicity took a parasol from the elephant’s foot umbrella stand—a hideous relic of his salad days in India, Mr. Ludwell claimed, but she suspected a second-hand shop was the true source—and gestured for Minerva to precede her out the door.

It was a beautiful spring day, the sky a clear cloudless blue that reminded Felicity of Wedgwood pottery. It might have been very pleasant had St. James’s Street not been such a busy thoroughfare. The day’s beauty was shattered by the sheer unbroken rush of traffic flying from Piccadilly to Pall Mall and back again. Horse’s hooves churned up the muck that coated the road, cart and carriage wheels rattled, drivers shouted abuse at each other, and the air smelled strongly of dung, dust and coal smoke.

Felicity spotted a sleek black carriage standing a few yards away. Remembering the cigar store next door, she wanted to dismiss the vehicle from her mind, but the scrap of fustian attached to the door seemed odd. There could be only one reason for it, but why did the nobleman who owned the carriage want to cover the painted crest to conceal his identity?

She glanced around for a constable, turning to address Minerva. Without warning, a rag clamped over her nose and mouth. Startled and no little frightened, Felicity instinctively sucked in a breath, recognizing too late the sweet odor of chloroform. She stiffened, clawing at the muscular arm looped around her neck, but her attacker was unrelenting, the chloroform fumes potent. Fear gripped her no less mercilessly than the man who held her immobile. The Wedgwood sky whirled around her. From a distance, she thought she heard Minerva speak.

“Do not be alarmed, Miss Smith,” Minerva said. “No harm is meant to you.”

No harm? Dizzied, her head spinning, Felicity’s eyes drifted shut. She slumped in a semi-swoon, unable to stand on legs weakened by the drug..

Thankfully, strong arms caught her before she completed her collapse to the pavement.
_______________________________________________________________________________________

Miss Smith & the Devil’s Library
To be published 2010 by PD Publishing

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“The yellow thread of exposure seems to be inextricably woven into all fabrics whose strength is secrecy.”
~ Harry Houdini (Ehrich Weiss) 1874-1926

CHAPTER ONE
London, England
December 1889

“Much gladness! Much gladness!” the Oriental magician cried cheerfully, producing a glass bowl brimming with water and two bright goldfish from the sleeve of his brocade robe.

In an excess of excitement, Rhiannon Moore crumpled the Athenaeum Theatre’s programme between her gloved hands. On the stage, the magician handed the goldfish bowl to his assistant, then he began whirling around on stiffened legs, pulling yards of colourful ribbons from his mouth and flinging them towards the audience. Earlier in his performance, he had eaten fire, caused dancing devils to appear in smoke, produced cups of coffee from an apparently empty cauldron, made his female assistant appear in a glass cage suspended above the stage, and escaped a locked trunk submerged in a tank filled with water. In terms of remarkable effects, Wu Wang certainly lived up to his billing as the Most Astonishing Celestial Conjurer in the World.

Now if only the woman sitting next to her would stop spoiling her enjoyment of the spectacle by providing practical explanations for Wu Wang’s magic tricks.

“I believe he has concealed tightly wound coils of thin silk ribbon in his mouth, tucked into his cheek or beneath his tongue,” Lady Evangeline St. Claire murmured.

Rhiannon loved Lina to distraction, but the woman’s commentary was annoying in the extreme. She wished Lina might be stricken dumb, or, at the very least, take the hint that destroying the magician’s delightful illusions with cold-minded deduction was not fair — not fair at all!

“He might even have such a coil in his sleeve,” Lina went on, “raising a hand to his mouth to create the pretence of—”

Her patience at an end, Rhiannon nudged Lina with an ungentle elbow in the ribs and hissed emphatically, “Shhh!”

Lina gave her a sidelong glance of reproach, but Wu Wang — having extracted a final length of bright scarlet ribbon from his lips, which pooled on the stage floor like a splash of blood — was about to perform the death-defying climax of his act, the one the programme called ‘Execution at the Jade Dragon’s Order’. Rhiannon would tolerate no interruptions.

With Lina subsided into sullen silence at last, she felt free to focus her attention back on the stage, where the magician was making his preparations. As Wu Wang apparently spoke no English apart from his signature phrase, ‘much gladness’, his pretty lady assistant translated the stream of sing-song gibberish that poured from his mouth.

“Since the magician Colleuw of Lorraine first penetrated the mystery of the bullet catch in the 1500s, many deaths have resulted from the performance of this magical conjuration, including that of Colleuw himself, who laid a curse upon it with his dying breath,” the translator chirped in lightly accented English. Like the magician, she was clad in a Chinese robe and loose trousers. Her black hair was fastened into two peach-shaped buns on the sides of her head, and her make-up was exaggerated, blue and yellow and scarlet over a pearl white base, making her resemble an Oriental doll.

She continued, “Wu Wang most humbly requests that the ladies and gentlemen gathered here this evening remain in absolute silence during the commission of this deadly experiment. There is a possibility that he could lose his life tonight; he must concentrate his powers if he is to emerge unscathed. The slightest sound may have devastating consequences.”

The audience remained hushed, the atmosphere strained with suspense. Lina stirred beside her and seemed about to speak. Rhiannon gave her a sharp glance and another elbowing that made her close her mouth with a snap. Satisfied Lina was not going to spoil this part of Wu Wang’s act, Rhiannon settled into her seat and prepared to be thrilled.

“It is well known in the Empire of the East,” the assistant said, “that every lady and every gentleman, no matter how high or humble their station, has the ability to channel the magnetic currents that surround us. You have the power to control the ætheric forces that are suspended between Heaven and Earth. You control Life and Death. During the bullet catch, Wu Wang asks that everyone in this theatre lend him their assistance by concentrating on creating a mental-electrical shield surrounding him, strong as steel yet insubstantial as light itself, to prevent the bullet from penetrating his body.”

A combination of newfangled electric arc lights and the more traditional limelights and gaslights glared brightly on the stage, making the colours of the painted backdrop and the performers’ sumptuous costumes appear even richer.

Rhiannon inhaled deeply, wondering whether she ought to take a whiff of the restorative vinaigrette she carried in her reticule. The air in the theatre was overheated and stuffy, redolent of cigar and cigarette smoke as well as viciously competing ladies’ perfumes, gentlemen’s colognes and fragrant hair pomades. A big bronze incense burner on the stage added to the mélange of scents with puffs of tuberose-scented smoke that made her nose itch.

The last time she had been to the theatre was during her estrangement from Lina, and while the company had been unobjectionable, the experience had not been entirely pleasant due to the blue funk she had been suffering at the time.

Rhiannon closed her eyes for a brief moment in thanksgiving. Thank God they had both come to their senses! She opened her eyes, ignoring the discomfort of perspiration trickling between her breasts — the temperature in the auditorium was stifling enough that three ladies in the Dress Circle had earlier swooned and been carried out to nearby refreshment rooms to be revived — and fixed her gaze on the stage, where the magician made a splendidly exotic sight.

In the Manchu fashion, Wu Wang’s glossy black hair had been allowed to grow long from a patch on the crown of his head. This was plaited into a queue that hung down his back to his buttocks; the rest of his head was shaved clean. His plait twitched when he brandished a gun and showed a bullet to the audience, then a blue and white porcelain dish which, he explained through the translator, he would hold in front of his body to catch the death-dealing missile. A volunteer from the audience was called for, answered from the stalls by a stout, white-haired gentleman with a military bearing. The volunteer was brought onto the stage where he was exhorted to examine the bullet to his satisfaction. After some scrutiny, he declared it genuine, and was ushered back to his seat by the lady assistant.

Throughout Wu Wang’s act, the orchestra had been playing a whimsical air with an Oriental flavour that reminded Rhiannon of Mssrs. Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, The Mikado. Now the music turned darker, the violins taking precedence with a shivering vibrato that echoed sympathetically in her body. Rhiannon could feel tension mounting in the auditorium, heightened by the oppressive heat. Apprehension and the weight of her heavy green velvet dress were smothering her. She sat straighter in her seat, trying to swallow around the growing knot in her throat. Her mouth was dry. Her nerves were drawn tight as wires. She dared not look away. Reaching out blindly, seeking reassurance, she clung to Lina’s hand.

Wu Wang stood on one side of the stage, holding the porcelain dish at arm’s length between his hands, as if the fragile thing could ever make an adequate shield. A masked and robed male assistant was on the other side of the stage, taking ostentatious aim with the gun that Wu Wang had loaded only seconds before. The orchestra music softened in volume but not intensity, the violins becoming a drone over which the reeds conversed in whispers of sound that rose trembling to a crescendo as the assistant pulled the trigger and—

Bang!

Crack!

There was a puff of white smoke. The porcelain dish shattered. Wu Wang staggered a couple of steps to the left, his slippered feet crunching on china shards.

The music faltered to a confused halt, punctuated by the flat blatting of a horn. Rhiannon screamed, as did many of the other women, the sound mingling with shocked masculine bellows. On the stage, Wu Wang looked puzzled. A crimson stain was rapidly spreading across the yellow brocade. Lifting a hand, he pushed a finger into the ragged, scorched hole in the front of his robe. His finger emerged red and dripping. Another woman screamed; the sound was shrill and sharp enough to hurt the eardrums. It was his lady assistant. She let out another shattering wail when Wu Wang collapsed to his knees.

“I’ve been shot,” Wu Wang said, breaking the shocked silence. “Close the curtain,” He spoke perfect English laced with a Scottish accent. Rhiannon could see a froth of bloody bubbles smeared across his mouth. Horrified, she gripped Lina’s hand more tightly as the curtain was hurriedly drawn across the stage, hiding the tragedy from view. The last glimpse she had of the gruesome spectacle was the lady assistant on the floor beside the fallen conjuror. The woman was crying in loud hysterical gulps, her hands clasped to her painted face.

The audience exploded in a buzz of conversation. Rhiannon heard the people around her speculating loudly. Almost all of them seemed convinced that Wu Wang had been a victim of the curse his assistant had mentioned.

After a long, patience straining moment, a gentleman in evening dress, whom Rhiannon presumed was the theatre manager, emerged onto the stage from the wings. The man was pale, his unhealthy waxen skin drawn tight over the bones of his face.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “please accept my apologies for the unfortunate interruption of Wu Wang’s performance.” He removed a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped it across his sweaty brow. The curtain behind him billowed, ripples of disturbance flowing along its length. In an otherwise silent auditorium, the muffled sound of a man’s curse from backstage could be clearly heard. The manager flinched but went on resolutely, “We will be continuing the evening’s entertainment in a few moments, and beg your indulgence for the delay.”

He sketched a brief bow and went back into the wings. Following a cacophonous squawk, the musicians regained their composure as well as some semblance of proper tuning, and the orchestra began playing a sentimental parlour song.

The manager’s place in front of the curtain was taken by a blond young lady who had a bunch of pink roses thrust behind her ear. Her toilette showed signs of haste; there was a smear of lampblack beneath one eye, and the line of bright red pomade on her lower lip was crooked. She smoothed down her white ruffled skirts, smiled, and began to sing in a lilting soprano:

“Slowly we glided with soft breezes blowing/
Bright were the stars in the blue sky above…”

Rhiannon turned to Lina, scarcely able to credit what she had just witnessed. The magic trick had gone terribly wrong! Was Wu Wang dead or merely wounded? But how could he have survived being shot in the chest? Why had he pretended not to speak English? A slew of questions threatening to flow out of her mouth in an uncontrolled gush, Rhiannon forced herself to pause. Lina’s handsome countenance bore such a fierce scowl, her dark brows nearly met over the bridge of her nose.

“What is it?” Rhiannon asked, concerned.

“I believe that some wickedness is afoot,” Lina muttered. She rose from her seat. “In fact, I am sure of it. Come, my dear. We must act at once before vital evidence is lost.”

“What is it?” Rhiannon repeated, although she rose and followed Lina’s tall form down the aisle. Gooseflesh rose on her arms, along with a bolt of freezing cold that lanced down her spine and caused her to shudder despite the auditorium’s heat. She could not get the image of Wu Wang’s bewildered expression out of her mind. Ignoring Rhiannon’s question, Lina marched to the metal pass-door almost hidden at the right side of the stage and slipped through it. Rhiannon stayed on her partner’s heels, unwilling to be left behind.

The backstage was a claustrophobic warren of tiny rooms, corridors, and oddly crowded spaces crammed with equipment, canvas sceneries, props, racks bristling with costumes, and other theatrical paraphernalia. Stacked cages of monkeys, small dogs, and budgerigars howled, barked, and shrieked. The newfangled electric lights had not been installed here; instead, hissing gas jet sconces on the flaking, green-painted walls provided light and added to the unrelenting, stifling heat. The contrast between the elegant front of the theatre and the chaotic, shambling backstage could not have been more pronounced.

Rhiannon brushed past a woman in flesh-coloured tights and a scandalously short skirt softening what smelled like tallow in an iron dish hooked over a gaslight’s flame. Rhiannon blinked. Was the woman about to fry up a late dinner or a fantastically early breakfast? But a table held small pots of dry pigments — zinc white, yellow ochre, and vermillion were among those she recognized — as well as mixing bowls. It seemed the woman was blending her own greasepaint. Lina did that at home every so often, sitting in the study with pots and jars and other supplies, a little Bunsen lamp sizzling at her elbow while she created cosmetics for her extensive disguise kit.

Lina moved with such confidence that no one questioned her at first, not even the liveried theatre assistants who were clustered together in groups, smoking cigarettes and chattering. Rhiannon recognized some of the performers in various states of dress and undress, including Miss Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Burgoyne, a male impersonator who stood in the doorway of her dressing room looking very cool in shirtsleeves and trousers. A thin towel was looped around the woman’s neck, and a cheroot smouldered in the corner of her mouth. Geraldine’s gaze flickered over Lina briefly, lingering on Rhiannon as she walked past. Rhiannon flushed under that disconcertingly direct regard.

They penetrated deeper into the backstage area, towards the dressing rooms reserved for the principals. Rhiannon became conscious of glances being thrown her way, assessing her expensive gown, her emerald ear-bobs, the gold and opal Eros brooch, inherited from her late aunt, Lilybet Beaton and worn as a pendant on a collar of pearls around her neck. Lina’s own gown of violet velvet trimmed in black marten fur and her extravagant ruby parure were subjected to equal scrutiny. She was also aware of an undercurrent of fear, evidenced by the performers’ white, shocked faces, and the whispers on the edge of her hearing that repeated the word ‘cursed’.

Finally, as she and Lina were approaching the thickest knot of people hovering near an open door, the theatre manager stopped them with a polite bow.

“Madam,” he said to Lina, “pray excuse my insistence that you remain in the auditorium…for your safety’s sake, you understand. It is not prudent for you to—”

Lina interrupted him by handing the gentleman her calling card, taken from the beaded reticule hanging on her wrist. The diamond buckle clipped to the dark coils of her hair struck sparks from the light. It was ornamented with a curl of ostrich feathers dyed violet to match her gown. The feathers shivered with each small movement of her head. “I presume you are the manager of this establishment, are you not?” she asked in her haughtiest tone.

The jewellery, the obvious costliness of Lina’s gown, the title on the calling card, her regal bearing, and her cut-glass Oxford accent made the manager’s spine straighten to its utmost rigidity. Rhiannon could almost read the man’s mind, his thoughts were so transparently reflected on his face. Lina was Quality — of that fact, there was not the slightest shred of doubt. Rhiannon understood his dilemma. A person in his position could not afford to give offence to the leisured class, but on the other hand, he could not condone a vulgar curiosity seeker, no matter how privileged she might be.

“I am the Athenaeum’s manager, Lady St. Claire,” he replied, but he did not move from his position, continuing to block the narrow corridor.

“Have you summoned the police? Scotland Yard?” was Lina’s next question.

He frowned. “Milady, that truly isn’t necessary—”

She interrupted him again. “I assure you, Mr…” Her voice trailed off and she raised an inquiring eyebrow.

He answered without hesitation, “Algernon DeLille, milady. And I—”

“Mr. DeLille,” Lina said, cutting him off a third time, “I assure you that the police must be called upon to begin an investigation without further delay.”

Rhiannon wondered why Lina was so insistent. Surely Wu Wang’s injury had been sustained accidentally! No other explanation seemed possible.

DeLille evidently thought so, too, for he wasted no time in objecting, “Wu Wang is dead, milady, in my opinion — and that of the theatre doctor, it must be stated — a most unfortunate misadventure whose blame rests entirely at the victim’s door.” His voice lowered. “Perhaps Wu Wang disturbed the spirits and has suffered for it. The trick is cursed, you know.”

Lina’s confidence remained unruffled. “Wu Wang’s shooting was not the result of a curse, nor was it an accident,” she declared.

The bald-faced pronouncement left DeLille gaping but he soon rallied. “How can you be sure? I beg your pardon, but I should think a lady would concern herself more with what is proper in her sphere, rather than make rash statements—”

“I know how the trick was done, Mr. DeLille,” Lina went on impatiently.

“What of it?” the man almost snapped. His hands were trembling slightly. Rhiannon realized that DeLille’s temper was beginning to fray, and no wonder. Still, he collected himself and added, “I apologize, milady. As you can well imagine, the distressing event this evening has left none of us quite ourselves.”

Waving away his apology with her programme as if it was a pesky fly, Lina asked, “Will you summon the police, or shall I?”

The lines around his mouth deepened, but he remained polite. “I will not, milady, without sufficient reason to do so.”

“Sufficient reason?” Lina’s emerald-green gaze glittered.

Rhiannon’s heart suddenly thumped against her ribcage, leaving her more breathless than before. She recognized Lina’s expression, the way her features sharpened with keen interest, and knew very well what that look boded. The only female consulting detective in London — almost certainly the Continent, and possibly the world, as well — was on the scent of a crime. Rhiannon began to doubt her certainty that Wu Wang’s death was an accident. Lina was rarely wrong about such matters.

“My good fellow,” Lina continued coolly, “I may state with absolute certainty that if the gentleman was, indeed, shot and killed by a bullet during the performance of ‘The Jade Dragon’s Execution’, as seems to be the case, then this was…” She paused for several nerve-wracking seconds. (No doubt for dramatic effect, Rhiannon thought wryly, as Lina never could resist playing to an audience.) At last, she continued, “An act of wilful, deliberate murder.”

What little colour he had retained now drained from his face until DeLille seemed as white as his celluloid collar.
___________________________________________________________________________________

The Curse of the Jade Dragon
Fourth in the Gaslight Series
Coming 2010 from PD Publishing

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All books in print available on-line at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, barnesandnoble.com and other fine retailers as well your favorite bookstore.

The Gaslight Series
Award winning mystery, adventure and romance set in late 19th century England. Join Lady Evangeline St. Claire and her beloved partner, Rhiannon Moore, as they solve baffling cases of murder and more!


Barking at the Moon
What’s the secret of the pale-furred wolves that roam the forest in Daredevil County? Sheriff Annalee Crow is about to find out…and it may cost her everything she holds dear. Supernatural romance at its best!
Winner 2009 Rainbow Award – Best Overall Lesbian Novel
Winner 2009 Lesbian Fiction Reader’s Choice Award – Favorite Lesbian Speculative Fiction
Winner 2010 Golden Crown Literary Society (GCLS “Goldie”) – Paranormal Romance

Water Witch: The Deceiver’s Grave
Swashbuckling historical fantasy – Join the notorious pirate Bess O’Bedlam as she searches the Caribbean for a cursed treasure as well as a mate worthy of her steel. Magic and mayhem abound as swords clash, cannons roar, and the Water Witch claims her due!
Winner 2007 Lesbian Fiction Reader’s Choice Award



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