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!
WATCHED BY DOZENS OF pairs of anxious eyes peering out from behind the scenery flats, Mr Tuttle had arrived on stage to take charge of the situation. At his bidding, two nervous-looking stage-hands scampered forward and began tugging Bella’s body back behind the curtain line. I knew what would happen next. The curtain would fall; the local police would be summoned; a preliminary investigation would be got under way. In the precious few minutes before the constabulary arrived, witnesses might reveal truths that they would later alter or deny when the officers began their enquiries. Every jobbing detective worth his salt knows this.
Bella had once been a friend of mine. Like me, she had found her way out of the Life and into a respectable profession. Though her death was most probably a tragic accident, I felt duty-bound to make sure of the fact. But if I was to act, I had to act now.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ demanded Mr Bruff, his harshly whispered query dying in my ears as I raced out of the box and along the passage, then dived down the stairs to the foyer. Negotiating the warren of corridors in a little under a minute, I arrived on stage, breathless but triumphant, just as the curtain came down.
The first to notice my sudden appearance there was the actress who’d carried on the mirror. She shrieked, and this brought me to the attention of the red-faced Mr Tuttle, who began to rail at me angrily:
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‘Lad,’ he cried in a booming voice, ‘what in God’s name are you doing here? Have you no respect for the dead, boy?’
The stage-hands, who been scurrying from flat to flat extinguishing the gas lamps, stopped what they were doing and stared. So did the actors, who were busy lighting candles. Even the bespectacled doctor, who was kneeling by the body, glowered up at me with a look that clearly labelled me a ghoul.
‘Mr Tuttle, sir, Miss Prynn was known to me. She and I were good friends once. My name is Octavius Guy and, though I may not look it, I am in fact the chief investigator for one of London’s foremost solicitors—Mr Mathew Bruff of Gray’s Inn Square. I can count amongst my clients an honourable member of parliament, and I’ve twice now been privileged to collaborate with the most celebrated detective of our age…the great Sergeant Cuff himself!’
Perhaps I’d gone too far, judging by the incredulous looks I was getting. Maybe I should have confined myself to my most recent case, where I’d tracked down old Lady Fairburn’s missing cat.
‘Please, sir,’ I implored the theatre manager, ‘I only wish to help. Has anyone sent for the police yet?’
‘No,’ he admitted, though to my mind rather reluctantly. ‘Lemuel, Christian? Would you kindly see to that?’
The two stage-hands who’d retrieved Bella’s body blinked at each other, then set off through the wings at a snail’s pace. It was like watching George and George of old. I was grateful to them for that, however, for at least it would buy me a little time before my credentials were challenged again.
‘Next you ought to make an announcement to the audience, sir. You needn’t tell them what has passed here. Just beg their indulgence and send them home.’
‘No, they deserve to know,’ insisted the doctor. He’d been eyeing me coldly ever since my appearance there. The thick, magnifying lenses of his spectacles enlarged his pupils to an alarming extent. ‘They’ll learn of it soon enough from the newspapers,’ he argued. ‘What good will it do to withhold the truth from them now?’
Mr Tuttle grunted and went off to make his address. I went and squatted beside Bella’s body and began a cursory examination of her throat. I should perhaps explain that “cursory” has nothing to do with cursing, no matter how similar the words may look. It’s more about having insufficient time to do a job thoroughly or, as was the case here, insufficient jurisdiction and experience.
‘Look, but do not touch,’ the doctor warned me, as I went to pull aside the ruff.
‘Strangulation?’ I queried, hoping to engage the man in conversation.
‘So it would appear.’
‘Your name, sir?’
‘Dr John Anderson.’
‘Of Harley Street?’
‘Of Highbury, if it’s any business of yours. I have a small country practice out that way.’
I studied the man from where I was crouched, trying to take his measure. His face was as yet unlined, but there were touches of white in his beard and his hair, especially where it swept back from his temples. A gentleman in his early forties, perhaps?
‘Please don’t take offence, sir, but, as a country doctor—skilled though you undoubtedly are—do you have the requisite experience to diagnose the cause of death?’
‘Boy, even in this candlelight you can see the ligature marks round her throat.’
He was right. There was no mistaking them. I thought about what Mr Peacock had said, how one of her executioners might have got a little over-zealous with his cord. But these marks did not look accidental; they’d been made with a real sense of purpose. Someone had been out to strangle her.
I glanced about the stage. The actors, who were still in their costumes, stood tearfully about in groups. The only ones who could have strangled her were the executioners in their monk’s outfits. Unhelpfully, they were not gathered in one single spot; they were dotted here and there.
Mr Tuttle rejoined us from behind the curtain, once again mopping his brow.
‘Tell me, sir,’ I said, as I got to my feet, ‘is all the cast and crew currently present?’
Mr Tuttle ran his eye over the assembled crowd. I too made a brief headcount. Twenty-one, including the doctor, now that the stage-hands had gone.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘all present and correct.’
‘But surely one of the executioners is missing?’
‘Missing?’ Mr Tuttle frowned. ‘Can all the executioners come here, please?’
Three actors in habits shuffled forward, all looking disappointingly ordinary now that they’d removed their cowls.
‘Where’s the fourth?’ I asked.
‘Fourth? What do you mean fourth? There are only three; three to throttle the duchess while Bosola rings his bell.’
‘But tonight there were four.’
‘I know who I employ, boy. I damned well ought to, since I’m the one who pays their wages.’
‘No,’ I insisted, ‘I remember it distinctly. Tonight there were four on the stage.’
‘The boy’s right,’ the doctor piped up. ‘I too saw four.’
One of the executioners gave an agitated nod. ‘It’s true,’ he said, ‘though I have no idea where the impostor came from. He just popped up out of the blue when it came time to make our entrance.’
Mr Tuttle turned pale. ‘There were four?’ he gasped.
‘Which rather suggests that this wasn’t an accident,’ I pointed out. ‘Someone went to the bother of disguising himself in order to strangle Miss Prynn.’
There was an outburst of speculative chatter.
I turned to the actor who’d spoken. ‘If you didn’t see him arrive,’ I said, ‘is it possible you saw him leave?’
‘No,’ he replied. ‘The trouble is, it’s all frightfully busy when we make our exit. We’re throttling Rose, you see—Mrs Winterbottom, here, who plays the chambermaid—’
Mrs Winterbottom, a rather large lady who was busy dabbing the tears from her eyes with a small, lace hanky, stepped forward and curtsied.
‘Because that happens off-stage,’ the man went on, ‘we have to make it sound convincing…even to somebody up in the gods.’
‘And you did, sir, you did! I myself savoured every moment!’
I recalled with relish the harrowing kicking and screaming sounds, the extraordinary vocal gurglings, and the final dreadful thud.
‘Why, thank you,’ said the actor, looking rather pleased with himself. Mrs Winterbottom, who was looking no less pleased, raised the sides of her skirts and gave an even deeper curtsey.
‘The point is,’ the actor continued, ‘by the time we were finished, there were only three of us again.’
‘Sir, did you not think it odd, the appearance of this extra executioner?’
‘Of course I did. But what was I to do? Once you’re on stage, you’re obliged to stay in character. I suppose I might have improvised and chased the blighter into the audience—a bit of comedy never goes amiss. But how was I to know which one to chase? When our cowls are up, you can’t see our faces. There’s a panel of coarse black lace sewn across the front.’
To prove his point he lifted his hood and pulled it over his head. Once the overhang of lace was tucked into his habit, his face had disappeared, and he looked every bit as menacing as he had done during the performance. I wondered if he and the other three realized just how lucky they were. Without this mysterious fourth executioner, Bella’s death would have been chalked up to one of them.
‘Step aside, now! Step aside!’ came a deep, raucous bellowing from somewhere in the wings.
Jostling through a group of actors who were not even in his path, a tall, bearded man of military bearing—dressed in a singularly ill-fitting constable’s tunic and a tall silk hat—forced his way on to the stage. The first thing I noticed was the scarf that he wore. It was wrapped around his collar, effectively concealing the identification number that would be embroidered there. It was a sure sign that, when the boys had found him, he’d been up to something he shouldn’t have been.
‘Step aside, now, all of you!’ he blustered. ‘Make way for an officer of the law!’
It seemed that his arrival had much the same effect on Mr Tuttle as it was having on me. The manager clapped his hand to his mouth, but the words seemed to slip out anyway: ‘God help us all.’
‘What’s going on here, then?’ the officer demanded, rounding on one of the lesser members of the cast. I wasn’t even sure if he’d noticed Bella’s body, despite it being difficult to miss.
When he failed to elicit anything but whimpers from the terrified actress, I tapped him on the forearm and said, ‘Sir, if you care to look over your shoulder, you’ll see that Miss Isabella Prynn has been murdered.’
‘Murdered?’ he thundered, turning on me. For quite some seconds he eyed me up and down. ‘And just who might you be, boy?’
His speech was slurred and oddly muffled; his cheeks were red and puffy. I could smell the alcohol on him from several paces, so, given the evidence of the scarf, my best guess was that we’d pulled him away from his regular on-duty drinking bout. I would tell you that G-Division, where I presumed he was from, was notorious for such larks, but the truth is, all the divisions were noted for it.
‘My name is Octavius Guy, sir, and I am chief investigator for one of London’s foremost solicitors—Mr Mathew Bruff of Gray’s Inn Square.
‘Is that so? Really?’ He appeared less than impressed with my humble résumé. ‘In that case, you can start by explaining just what you are doing here.’
‘Miss Prynn was known to me, sir. I’ve come to offer my services.’
‘Do I look like I have need of your services?’
Undoubtedly. ‘No, sir.’
‘Then run along, now. Quickly!’
I considered mentioning my connection to Sergeant Cuff, but rapidly decided against it. If he believed me, he would have considered it bragging—or worse, taken it as some kind of threat. Instead I tried appealing to his better nature; a foolish move, for he didn’t have one.
‘Miss Prynn was a friend, sir. I just want to help.’
‘You can help by running along, boy.’
Eyes flashing like an angry bull’s, he lowered his face till it was inches from mine…and then he growled. There’s no other word for it—the man growled!
I quickly backed away, taking one final glance at the cast as I turned to go. Something struck me as odd, though I couldn’t think what. Was it the fact that they looked like a stableful of nervous horses who sensed they were about to be gored? No. It was nothing as obvious as that.
Pondering this niggling question, I made my way back along the corridor. Lit by guttering candles in strategically-placed wall-sconces, this shabby, little rat-run was as quiet as the grave. That suited my purpose perfectly, for I’d arrived at the principals’ dressing rooms and was about to put into practice one of my recently devised rules. Mr Crabbit—he of the petty cash—has an extensive set of rules regarding the eligibility of receipts. I—now that I too was retained in a professional capacity—felt it only right and proper that I should have a set of my own; hence: Guy’s First Rule of Detection, namely, Take every chance that’s afforded you to nose about.
I opened the door to the first room. It was dark, so I grabbed the nearest candle from the corridor and made a brief search of the interior. Nothing impressed itself upon me as being in any way suspicious so I moved swiftly on to the next room. This one was a sight untidier, but, once again, nothing looked out of place, at least as far as I could tell.
It was the third dressing room, which belonged to Mr Jacobs—the actor who played Bosola—where I finally struck pay dirt. As I opened the door, I was greeted by the strong and unmistakable smell of recently extinguished candles. Someone had been there, and not so very long ago. Judging by the hastily discarded costume on the floor, it was Mr Jacobs himself, for I recognized it as the one that he’d been wearing. His wig lay abandoned on the dressing table, next to a tray of pigments. My eye was drawn to the drawstring bag beside it, which, on investigation, turned out to contain shredded rags. I rubbed some of the shreds between my fingers. What purpose could they serve, I wondered? They might conceivably have been employed for removing make-up—though in this case I rather doubted it; there was a hand towel on the floor that had been used for that.
At least now I knew what had been puzzling me about my parting glimpse of the cast. Mr Jacobs had chosen to absent himself. But where had he gone and why? Was he somehow involved with Bella’s murder? He certainly hadn’t been the one to strangle her; I’d been watching him on stage the whole time.
Could there be some other reason for his disappearance? Did he wish to avoid an awkward interview with the police, perhaps? As understandable as that undoubtedly was, it was nevertheless worth investigating.
I returned to the corridor and listened for signs of activity. Thankfully, all I could hear were the occasional, muffled murmur coming from the stage. I briefly considered going back to inform the constable of my findings, but such a rash, ill-conceived act would fly right in the face of Guy’s Second Rule of Detection, namely, Unless it’s a matter of life and death, keep what you find out to yourself.
As on the tour that Mr Tuttle had given us, I saved Bella’s dressing room for last. The first thing I noticed as I opened the door was that someone had left the candles burning. A candelabra had been set before the mirror on her dressing table, lighting up the cubicle with a shimmering, golden light. I went and sat where Bella would have sat, and made a brief examination of her things.
Her make-up was also set out on a tray, but everything—make-up, tray, and dressing table—was covered in a dusting of powdered French chalk. A box of the stuff had been left open, and its contents had landed everywhere. I replaced the powderpuff and lid and continued my search.
At the back of a drawer I found a number of personal items: a kid-skin purse containing nearly two shillings in change, a dainty silk handkerchief embroidered with the initials “B. C.”, and a pair of gold rings—one plain and noticeably larger than the other; the second somewhat smaller, but set with a tiny, clear stone—things, I presumed, that she didn’t wish to take with her on stage.
Satisfied, I moved on to her laundry basket. When I removed the wicker lid, my heart skipped a beat. Could the coarse, brown material that I spied inside be what I thought it might be? I reached in and hauled it out. As the costume unfurled in my hands, I did a little dance of joy. Here it was, in all its glory: the missing executioner’s habit!
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