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Authors: Raymond Buckland

Cursed in the Act

A SHOCKING DEBUT

The play was going well. The Guv'nor seemed to have regained most of his stamina and was charming the audience in his usual manner. They were eating out of his hand. I stood behind the prompt and watched from the wings. Scene Three finished and I saw Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern gathered opposite me, with Maurice Withers as Fortineras on my side of the stage waiting to go on. The lights were not dimmed for the brief scene change; it was a simple matter for the backdrop to come rolling down and the scene to start. At a cue from me, Sam Green and his men sent the backdrop rolling down. There was a sudden gasp from the audience, followed by a scream from Edwina Price, the prompt. The scream startled me since Miss Price normally never uttered a word during a performance, unless called upon to prompt.

“Lights! Douse the lights!” Someone responding faster than me shouted the order, but the lights remained steadily burning. I saw the reason for the commotion and leapt forward.

As the scene backdrop unfolded, something that had been rolled up inside it came bouncing out. It was a severed human head!

C
URSED

in the
A
CT

Raymond Buckland

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

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CURSED IN THE ACT

Copyright © 2014 by Raymond Cochran-Buckland.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

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BERKLEY
®
PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-62408-1

An application to register this book for cataloging has been submitted to the Library of Congress.

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley Prime Crime trade paperback edition / January 2014

Cover illustration by Bill Angresano.

Cover design by Diana Kolsky.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Acknowledgments

 

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

To Tara and in loving memory of “Tish”

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Many thanks to my wonderful agent, Grace Morgan, for her enthusiasm and tenacity, and to the beautiful and talented Michelle Vega of Berkley Prime Crime for sharing that enthusiasm. Thanks to Marianne Grace for her excellence in copyediting, and to artist Bill Angresano and designer Diana Kolsky for the eye-catching cover. Thanks to all the many people at Berkley Prime Crime who have contributed to the production of this book. I am extremely grateful.

Thanks also to the Killbuck Valley Writers' Guild for listening and critiquing over the years—stalwarts Barb Lang, Denice Rovira Hazlett, Ed Schrock, Michele Brown Skolmuch, Susan Corl, Bruce Stambaugh, Jennifer McCluggage, Leslie Keating, and Nöraa Hazlett. And special thanks to my wife, Tara, for her constant encouragement and always brilliant constructive criticisms.

Chapter One

LONDON, 1881

T
here was a light dusting of snow, though not enough to hide traces of the filth and detritus that covered street and pavement at all hours of the day and night. There was enough built up in the gutters to camouflage the edge of the curb and make stepping off it a hazard. At that late hour, with the theatre district finally deserted, traffic was no longer heavy in the heart of London. The gaslights outside the Lyceum Theatre had been extinguished, although one solitary mantle still burned over the side entrance. A sign above it read
STAGE DOOR
in faded, weatherworn letters. I held my coat collar up and tight about my ears and pulled my bowler hat down more firmly on my head as I approached the theatre.

Ahead of me a hansom cab pulled in close to the entrance and a tall man in a heavy Inverness coat got out. The cab moved away, its wheels muffled as it passed over the snow-covered cobblestones. The man held on to the brim of his top hat as a gust of wind blew around the corner, stirring his cape and swirling eddies of fresh snow into miniature white whirlwinds. He hurried inside the theatre, the door banging closed behind him.

“Mr. Stoker has got there before me,” I muttered to myself. “So much for making a good impression.”

Not that I needed to make an impression, good or bad. My position was secure, I knew. I had been Mr. Bram Stoker's stage manager for three years now and we got along well . . . as well as any employer and employee might. I hurried forward and pushed through the stage door.

“Good evening, Bill.”

Old Bill Thomas, head buried in a copy of the
Sporting Times
, barely glanced up as I passed his cubicle. I wondered, not for the first time, if the man lived there. It seemed he was always behind his little window no matter what time of the day or night I entered or left the theatre. Bill was the doorman, keeping out the riffraff while acknowledging the cast and crew.

It had been an odd sort of a day, even for a Henry Irving first night. First nights were always full of nervous actors, prima donnas, and unforeseen crises. Actors forgot lines they had repeated innumerable times; props got mysteriously moved from where I—as stage manager—had carefully placed them; scenery that had been securely fastened threatened to fall down. But on this occasion there had been an added distraction . . . Mr. Henry Irving had been poisoned.

* * *

I
remember the scene—it will be a very long time before I forget it—with Mr. Irving, face like that of a dead man, leaning against the jamb of the door into his dressing room. Miss Ellen Terry was admonishing him to go to bed.

“You cannot go on, Henry. Admit it. Why, you can hardly stand up straight.”

“I can stand perfectly well, Ellen.”

“The doctor says you have probably been poisoned. Come now! You have an understudy who is able to take over.”

The little group in the passageway outside the Guv'nor's dressing room turned briefly to look at Mr. Peter Richland, the understudy in question. He did not inspire confidence. Mr. Irving's voice could fill the theatre, from the pit all the way up to the gods. Mr. Richland's voice reflected more the weaknesses of the Prince of Denmark. All eyes turned back to Mr. Irving.

“It is a first night,” he said, a little of his usual fire breaking through. “I have never missed a first night in my life, nor will I.”

“It may well become a last night if you do not follow your doctor's advice,” said Miss Terry.

I glanced at Mr. Stoker, now helping support Mr. Irving, who was already in costume. Whether or not he had applied makeup I couldn't say; his face was so colorless. I then looked at Dr. Cochran, hovering in the background behind this pale figure of Hamlet. He was fidgeting with items in his bag and was obviously trying not to be drawn into the argument.

“I have made my decision!” The Guv'nor pushed himself away from the doorpost, patted Mr. Stoker on the shoulder, and then lurched back into his dressing room. “Where's that callboy? Must be overture and beginners by now, isn't it?”

* * *

T
he drama offstage was frequently a match for that onstage, I had come to realize. Happily, I was still young enough to adjust. 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. There were one hundred and fifty boys at the school, taught by three masters. We were drilled in Greek, Latin, French, German, mathematics, history, and geography. I did not excel in any one of these subjects.

My mother died trying, unsuccessfully, to bring my brother into the world. My father passed soon after that, so, at the age of fourteen, I had been forced to come to London to seek my fortune. After a few rough years as a crossing sweeper, errand boy, and newspaper seller, I began working as a cabdriver and thus met the owner of the small Novelty Theatre on Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields. Through this acquaintance, I obtained the job of theatre doorman. 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 his personal assistant. I came to admire him a great deal, although I have to admit, even after three years, that I still could 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 senses, and even “the little people,” and spent what little spare time he had writing his own stories. I must admit that I would not change my employment for any other.

But now, Henry Irving had been poisoned. Happily, he had survived, although he was severely incapacitated, and Mr. Stoker and I had vowed to determine who was responsible. After all, if Mr. Irving died, the two of us would be out of a job.

* * *

“S
it down, Harry.”

I moved across the small office and perched on the edge of a straight-backed chair, close to the theatre manager's old and battered desk. It wasn't really a desk as such; it was an ancient kitchen table. I knew that Mr. Stoker had brought it across from Ireland with him when he came to the Lyceum Theatre three years ago. He called it his “lucky table.” It had once been the family table at his home in Clontarf, a suburb of Dublin. Mr. Stoker—known to close associates as Bram, though Mr. Irving always insisted on using the full Abraham—had told me how he had grown up leaning on that table when, for the first seven years of his life, he had been barely able to walk. He had gone on to recover, had entered Trinity College, and had taken the table with him to his study where he advanced to graduate with honors. I knew that the old table was dear to him, full of memories. Right now the top surface was almost completely covered with papers: playbills, programs, call sheets, and innumerable scraps of paper with scribbled notes on them.

“How's the Guv'nor?” I asked. Everyone called Mr. Irving “the Guv'nor.”

Stoker fingered his bushy mustache and looked at me with one piercing gray green eye; the other eye scrunched up. I knew that meant he was worried, though he'd never admit it.

“He should never have gone on tonight.”

“We all tried to tell him,” I said. Not that anyone can tell Mr. Irving anything he does not want to hear. “Peter Richland was beside himself, of course. This is the fourth or fifth time that he's been ready to go on and the Guv'nor has made a comeback.”

Stoker nodded his large head. “I feel for him,” he said. “Always the understudy and never the star. Must be very frustrating.”

“I thought Mr. Irving was going to take ill at the start of Scene Five. He said the line ‘Alas, poor ghost!' and then began that terrible retching cough, and I think he actually held on to a flat at one point.”

“Mmm.” Again Mr. Stoker nodded.

“Doctor Cochran says he doesn't know what poisoned him. At first he thought it might just be food poisoning, but then he decided that it was far more serious than that. He said the Guv'nor's lucky he didn't die.”

“You can't kill Henry Irving.”

“I agree, sir,” I said. “But someone certainly tried.”

Because it was opening night Mr. Irving had insisted that the police not be called. The performance should have been postponed, with the star so desperately ill, but there had been a rush to open before the Sadler's Wells Theatre launched their production of
Twelfth Night
, starring Philius Pheebes-Watson as Malvolio and Gladys Stringer as Olivia. There had been a keen rivalry between the two theatres ever since Mrs. Bateman had left as manager of the Lyceum and taken up the same position at Sadler's Wells.

Just ten years ago in 1871, Mr. Hezekiah Linthicum Bateman, an American, had taken over the lease of the Lyceum and assembled a company with Henry Irving heading it. When the Guv'nor did a widely acclaimed performance of Mathias in
The Bells,
he became something of a major player on the London stage. Four years later Bateman died, leaving his widow in charge of the theatre. Mrs. Bateman was capable but not really able to manage such a massive undertaking, and she relinquished the Lyceum in 1878 and moved to Sadler's Wells Theatre. The Guv'nor then took over the Lyceum's lease and, with the extremely capable assistance of Abraham Stoker as theatre manager, built up a formidable reputation for the theatre.

Mrs. Bateman and Mr. Irving did not get along. I should say that they
had not
got along . . . At the beginning of January Mrs. Bateman had gone to join her husband. However, her place had been taken by her eldest daughter Kate. Kate—almost forty years of age—had married the actor George Crowe. The Guv'nor felt no friendlier toward Mrs. Crowe than he had toward her mother.

“Where is the Guv'nor now?” I asked.

“I finally managed to send him off home to bed. Not to stir until tomorrow night's performance.”

It was my turn to nod. When the curtain had come down—and after the usual number of curtain calls—the cast had dispersed to their various abodes, and both Mr. Stoker and myself had slipped out for a bite of supper. As usual after an opening, we had come back to the theatre for a quick review before going home ourselves.

“It was a good house,” I said.

My employer did not immediately respond. I studied his dark auburn hair—a far cry from my own “ginger” carrot red mop. Funny we should both be redheads, I thought. Perhaps his six feet and two inches compared to my puny five feet and six inches affected hair color in some way? Or his thirty-three years of age to my twenty-two? In the flickering lamplight I saw that Stoker's generous beard and mustache were already highlighted with the slightest touches of silver gray. Bram Stoker was married to his work and carried the burden of the entire Lyceum Theatre, with its more than three hundred employees. He kept a finger on every aspect of the enterprise, from the payroll to the actors and actresses, the scenery builders, the front of house, programs, advertising . . . everything. I don't think he had much time to spend with Mrs. Stoker or even their young son. I had heard rumors that the marriage was not a happy one, though I tried not to listen to gossip.

“I'll be interested to see what the critics have to say,” he said, and sighed. “They are never willing to give an inch, no matter the circumstances.”

“Not that they would know about the poisoning,” I responded.

“Oh, they'll know.” His big head nodded once again, slowly, up and down. “Theatre tittle-tattle is the life's blood of critics. Believe me, Harry, they'll know.”

It was nearly an hour later that I locked the office door and left the theatre. Mr. Stoker had, reluctantly it seemed to me, dragged himself away ahead of me and asked Bill Thomas to find him a hansom. When Bill would leave, I had no idea. Thoughts of Mr. Henry Irving's poisoner could wait until tomorrow yet could not be disregarded. Someone had tried to poison the Guv'nor and we needed to know who and why. Bill Thomas had suggested that we might consider Herbert Willis.

“He was always trouble,” Bill had said.

It was true, though Bill did tend to think the worst of just about everyone. Willis was a stagehand and Mr. Stoker had let him go because he had been inebriated on the job once too often. He left shouting curses at the Lyceum—which I think disturbed Mr. Stoker more than he would admit—but it seemed too early to think of Willis as a would-be murderer.

I set out through the dwindling snow in the direction of Chancery Lane. My gloomy rooms at Mrs. Bell's establishment were never an attraction, but I knew that at least I'd find a cup of cocoa waiting for me and perhaps a scuttle full of coal in my room, to bank up a bright, warm fire.

* * *

I
t was my job to pick up copies of all the major newspapers on the morning following a first night. Although theatre managers, producers, and especially the actors themselves may pooh-pooh the opinions of the critics, those opinions can make or mar a production costing hundreds of pounds. I bought the
Times
,
Morning Herald
,
Daily News
,
and
Morning Chronicle
. The more important
Era
,
Stage Directory
,
and
Referee
, all of which focus on the theatre, were all weekly publications, so we would have to wait to see what they had to say. With the newsprint under my arm, I hurried into the theatre and made for Mr. Stoker's office. I found the big man already there, a copy of the
Times
spread out across his desk and his gold-rimmed spectacles perched on the bridge of his nose.

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