Our Victorian boy detective’s next big case is a revenge tragedy (of sorts) in (roughly—very roughly) three acts. New chapters will be posted each Friday in the lead-up to its March 1st release. This week: Chapter One. Join Gooseberry—AKA Octopus—real name Octavius—on his most perplexing case to date! Available to pre-order now at a very special price!
WHEN MR BRUFF SAW the pair advancing, he took my advice and crossed to the other side of the road, where mercifully he was at last out of earshot. I held my ground as the two of them approached, which wasn’t quite as brave as it might sound. With their caps in their hands and their heads bowed in deference, they couldn’t have looked any less menacing
‘You’re Octopus, ain’t yeh?’ the thickset one asked, daring to raise his eyes a fraction.
Octopus. My other nickname, given to me to mark the fact that I was once London’s swiftest, slipperiest pickpocket. It’s a play on words based on my real name; a reference to my great dexterity when working my way through a crowd, as if I had eight hands, not two. You should note that, although I’m officially retired from the profession, I can still rise to the occasion when I need to.
I put on my stern face and grunted a response in the affirmative. Thickset held out the gentleman’s wallet, expecting me to take it—as was my due—and so I obliged him accordingly.
‘This your manor, then, gents?’ I asked, as I whipped it from his hands. The gruff accent I adopted was almost pure Bertha—the man my employer thinks is my mother—though naturally my voice is nowhere as deep. I’ve found from experience it’s what people expect; they respond better if I speak like a Cockney.
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‘It is, sir,’ came his reply. ‘From Elm Street to the City Road, diagonal, like.’
Ah, so that would include the theatre. I gave what I hoped would sound like an unconcerned sniff and said, ‘You two are finished ’ere for the evening.’
‘You’re done ’ere, see? And now you’ll scarper off ’ome…and quickly, if you knows what’s good for yeh.’
Thickset glanced at his companion. ‘You sure he’s Octopus?’ he muttered.
‘I’m only going by what I heard,’ his friend whispered back. ‘Who else would have peepers like those?’
‘Don’t make me tell yeh a third time!’ I warned them, as I felt my authority slipping—not that it did me much good. Their heads were no longer bowed, nor were they now bothering to avert their eyes.
‘He’s only a bleedin’ boy,’ grunted Thickset. ‘We could take ’im, no problem!’
With looks that spoke volumes about the damage they intended to inflict, they began to edge their way towards me.
‘Do you know the kind of trouble you’ll find yourselves in if you so much as even touch me?’ I squawked.
That set them thinking. They knew as well as anyone that only a deuce—a second-in-command—might challenge me with impunity. For everyone else there’d be consequences.
Using this momentary hesitation to my advantage, I thrust my bag of cheese cakes into Thickset’s hand. ‘And while you’re at it, take these,’ I snarled.
Thickset opened the bag and peeked inside.
‘Cheese cakes,’ I snapped, when he looked up in astonishment. ‘To compensate yeh for the loss of potential earnin’s, see?’ Clearly he didn’t. The words were too long. ‘For your supper,’ I was forced to elucidate. ‘Now, go on, ’op it!’
With great reluctance, the pair turned and set off down one of the side streets, not exactly hopping it, but at least they went. Mr Bruff, who’d been watching all this from a distance, now came scurrying back. We hastened over to the man on the ground and between us we dragged him to his feet.
‘Taken by surprise,’ he gasped, once he’d managed to regain his balance. ‘Fair got the wind knocked out of me.’
The minute he opened his mouth, I knew the man was from Birmingham. He spoke with the curiously elongated and shortened vowels that are unique to the area, wherein it’s an ai-ee for an eye and a tuth for a tooth. The last time I’d heard such an accent, it was from the lips of my own mother. She too had come from Birmingham, God rest her soul.
‘Are you in need of medical attention, sir?’ my employer asked him.
‘No, sir, no. It’s my pride that is wounded, not my body, I’m very pleased to say.’
‘But your face, sir…’ Mr Bruff’s voice trailed off as he gazed at three long, livid welts that criss-crossed the man’s left cheek.
‘Those?’ the man laughed nervously. ‘Old fencing scars; nothing more. Though it pains me to admit it, I was never much good at the sport.’
About as good as I was at picking locks, I reflected, as I gave him a quick once-over. He was slight-of-build, almost to the point where one might label him a weakling, and even when he smiled—as he was smiling now—his face bore a bewildered expression.
‘The name’s Bone—Clarence Henry Bone—until quite recently a student of anatomy and medicine. Too plainly spoken, my teachers all said, and quite incapable of exerting my authority. Well, there’s no use crying over spilt milk, is there? If I’m temperamentally unsuited to the welfare and doctoring of my own native countrymen, then so be it! I shall work my little miracles of life and death where there’s a chance they’ll be appreciated—in a foreign Christian Mission, perhaps, on some barbarous, far-flung shore!’
Mr Bruff glanced at me and blinked. I knew exactly what was going through his head: here was a chap who didn’t know when to shut his trap. A silent thought passed between us. Maybe his teachers were right.
‘Mathew Bruff, solicitor, sir,’ my employer introduced himself, without needing to quote his entire life history. ‘Glad to be of service. And this young man is Gooseberry. He’s my—’
‘Chief investigator,’ I put in sharply, for I just knew he was about to say “office boy”.
‘Oh, yes. Quite so,’ Mr Bruff conceded. ‘My chief investigator.’
Mr Bone cocked his head to one side. ‘Gooseberry?’ he said, as I handed him back his wallet. ‘Why, I could have sworn those ruffians called you Octopus.’
‘Octopus?’ My heart sank. If he’d managed to hear that, what else might he have overheard?
‘His real name is Octavius,’ Mr Bruff explained, ignorant as he was of my old nickname. ‘I expect that’s what you heard them say. Gooseberry’s merely an affectionate term bestowed on him by one of my clerks.’
Mr Bone blinked. ‘But how would they know what his name was?’
‘The thugs who attacked me…how would they know the lad’s name?’
Confusion reigned on my employer’s face as he realized too late his mistake. Mr Bruff prides himself on keeping my past a secret, but, by suggesting they’d called me anything, he’d confirmed that the two of them knew me. It was one of the few times I had ever seen him blush, and the sight of it made my blood boil. Who did this pipsqueak upstart think he was to go embarrassing my employer so?
‘But I do know them, sir,’ I said, stepping into the breach. ‘Leastways, I know their grandmother. And if she knew what they were up to, Lord, their lives wouldn’t be worth living! I’m very well known in this neighbourhood, sir. Here, let me prove it to you.’
By this point there was a smattering of passing foot traffic, so I raised my hand and gave a fulsome wave to a pair of perfect strangers. The ploy worked. The young woman waved cheerfully back, and even her swarthy companion paused to tip his hat and grin.
‘See, sir? They all know Octavius Guy around here.’
‘Well, thank you for coming to my rescue, Octavius, and thank you for returning my wallet. But now I need to be on my way if I’m to make it to the theatre.’
‘You’re for The Duchess of Malfi?’ enquired Mr Bruff, recovering some of his former composure. ‘What a coincidence. We are too, sir. Will you not permit us to see you there safely?’
It was too much to hope that he wouldn’t, so when he assented—just as I imagined he would—the three of us set off for Sadler’s Wells without further ado.
We found Mr Willoughby and Mr Peacock waiting for us in the lobby. They accepted Mr Bruff’s apologies for our tardiness and sympathized with Mr Bone over his ordeal. He and I were received into their party with much good grace, and Mr Bone could scarcely believe his luck when he learned that he was about to meet the cast.
The theatre manager—a jovial, grey-bearded chap in his fifties who went by the name of Tuttle—led us through a warren of narrow corridors to an area at the back of the stage. Here we were shown from dressing room to dressing room and introduced to each of the principal actors. Miss Isabella Prynn, the actress who played the duchess, he tantalizingly saved for last.
‘Come!’ boomed a woman’s voice, as he rapped on her door with a flourish.
We were ushered into a small, candlelit room, where we gazed in silent awe at the magnificent figure before us. Miss Prynn stood with her back to us, her head carefully angled to show off her high, shapely cheekbone. No longer in the first flush of youth—yet poised and confident in a way that only a woman of maturity and experience can be—she held this pose for a minute or more, allowing our eyes to take in every detail of her costume: the pale-grey bodice of luminous silk atop skirts of pale-grey brocade; the pale-grey ruff about her graceful neck and the pearl-festooned wig on her head. Need I say it? She looked every bit my idea of the perfect ghost!
At long last she moved. Flicking open her fan for dramatic effect, she turned majestically to face us.
‘Oh, it is such an honour to meet you,’ gushed Mr Peacock, as he took hold of the hand that she proffered. ‘Do you know, I saw you play Portia? Many actresses your age would shy away from the part, but not you, Miss Prynn, not you!’ The smile that might once have been genuine froze like a caricature on her lips. ‘I hardly dared believe my colleague capable of arranging this little tryst for us,’ he babbled on, ‘and yet here you are—in the flesh, so to speak—like a goddess descended from heaven.’
I had no idea who Portia was, or to which play he was referring, but I got the impression she was someone quite young. In light of the awkward atmosphere that now prevailed in the room, Mr Willoughby gave a somewhat constrained little bow and kept his greeting simple and brief.
‘Thanks for receiving us, lass, but we best be on our way. Thou’ll want to get ready, as likely as not.’
Ignoring this none-too-subtle hint, the irksome Mr Bone burst into a long—and, by now, all too familiar—speech. ‘The name’s Bone—Clarence Henry Bone, miss—until quite recently a student of anatomy and medicine. Too plainly spoken, my teachers all said, and quite incapable of exerting my authority. Well, there’s no use crying over spilt milk, is there? If I’m temperamentally unsuited…’
But his words were falling on deaf ears. Any semblance of a smile had long since vanished and her expression was now one of fear. She was staring at me, just as I was staring at her—and with very good reason, believe me. The truth was we both knew each other. Knew each other quite well, in fact. She knew me as Octopus. I knew her as Bella. Back in the day, this celebrated actress had been the best confidence trickster in town.
Suddenly her eyes rolled back in her head, and she teetered and swayed precariously.
‘Miss Prynn, are you quite all right?’ cried Mr Tuttle, racing to her side to support her. As she swooned in his arms, he threw us a glance and begged us to afford her some privacy.
‘Of course, of course,’ the five of us muttered, and beat a retreat into the corridor. For quite some few minutes we stood there uncomfortably, trying to ignore the hushed whisperings we could hear from within. When at long last they stopped, we found ourselves heaving a collective sigh of relief. Then the door opened, compelling us to silence, and Mr Tuttle rejoined us. His face was grim.
‘How is Miss Prynn?’ asked Mr Willoughby.
‘Miss Prynn?’ The question seemed to puzzle him, and it was only after a moment’s thought that he replied, ‘Oh, Miss Prynn. She’ll be fine, she’ll be fine. A case of pre-curtain nerves, I expect.’ He produced a large linen handkerchief from his pocket and set about mopping his brow. It needed it; the man was sweating profusely. When he was done, he glanced at each of us in turn, and said, ‘Now, if you good sirs will just follow me, I will show you up to your box.’ Sighing, he began herding us back the way we had come.
The rest of the story you already know: the ill-treated duchess and her murderous brothers; the cowled executioners; the cords round her neck. Though nothing had been officially announced yet, I was inclined to agree with Mr Bone. Miss Isabella Prynn was certainly not fine. Miss Isabella Prynn was dead.
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