Enjoy the first three chapters of Ghosts of Tsavo!
It’s an uncommonly known fact that a strong pot of tea will obscure a werewolf’s stench. Given that one doesn’t normally walk around with a teapot in hand, this fact will be of little comfort to a human unless she happens to be sitting in a teahouse.
So it was a jolly good thing I was, at that moment, in a teahouse.
I slurped down that most marvelous of beverages and eyed the suspected werewolf. I say ‘suspected’ since I had yet to confirm if she was in fact one, or simply a naturally hairy woman of dubious lineage.
In either case, she really should never wear that red dress again as it did nothing to cover her horrendously hairy arms. The only fortunate aspect of the outfit was the color, as it matched the heavy velvet curtains framing the large, street-facing window perfectly. Thus I entertained myself while wondering what to do next.
I tried squinting my eyes to study her energy field, but again discovered the same result: very little. That in itself was unusual as I was normally able to observe a fair bit in any energy field I wished to study. But in this case and without my multi-layered glasses—left at home in the rush to follow my quarry—I could discern very little.
Generally speaking, I don’t study people’s energy; for a start, it’s rude to squint and stare at a person (unless required to do so for work or self-preservation), and quite frankly, I’d prefer not to know too much.
But this was work, and I was stumped. A werewolf’s energy was normally very clear once I focused my eyesight by squinting. In contrast, her energy was somewhat ambiguous, glimmering around her in a manner I to which wasn’t accustomed.
Clearly, she had some paranormal streak in her, but she could be anything at this point, including a highly gifted tarot card reader. And my portfolio didn’t cover tarot card readers, gifted or (as is usually the case) not.
What if she’s Koki in disguise?
Not even the rich aroma of tea could dispel the chill that enveloped me as this thought slunk into my mind. It was a hideous possibility.
I was certain the Praying Mantis had by now tracked me to London; her vendetta against me impelled her to seek me out wherever I fled. I knew she could as easily alter her human appearance as she could her insect size. Could this be her?
I studied the woman in red, but couldn’t detect Koki’s energy signature. Whatever the woman was, I was sure she wasn’t a giant insect with an implacable thirst for revenge and decapitations.
To be fair, I had cut off one of Koki’s six legs, but it was purely in self-defense, and she did have five other limbs. To maintain a grudge this long was rather immature. Terrifying, but immature.
I patted the lock of hair over my ear—the ear with a bite out of it—and inhaled the steam from my cup.
Apart from my good fortune to have at hand a pot of strong tea, the situation had begun to deteriorate. It had just started pouring, which wasn’t terribly surprising for London in late autumn; however, rain intensified the wet-doggy stench of werewolves, an odor I couldn’t countenance. And to top it off, I hadn’t brought an umbrella.
All of that is a roundabout way of saying that if forced to continue the investigation outside, I would soon be drenched and the jaunty peacock feather stuck into my new hat would be ruined in no time.
And that’s enough about the weather and feathers.
Just as I was mourning the inevitable demise of a good hat and berating the absence of an umbrella in my hand, the suspect stood, deposited a few coins and marched out of the teahouse and into the downpour.
She clearly wasn’t human.
I placed my teacup carefully down, reluctant to leave the unfinished pot that squatted in the middle of the small, round table.
“Duty calls,” I said and followed the example of the creature in the ghastly red dress, minus the marching. As I was fond of reminding whomever cared to listen, I was a widow but losing one’s husband was no excuse for losing one’s manners.
I waited for a pair of horses drawing an elaborate, metal-encrusted carriage to pass, thus avoiding the small wave of filth and water that splashed onto the brick building. The wet cobblestones were slippery, but as I was not one to wear fancy heeled shoes, I made good progress, dodging raindrops, umbrellas and the occasional ghost as I followed the red dress.
Predictably, the woman didn’t remain on the main thoroughfare, nor did she think to enter into a warm, dry café. In the perverse way of supernatural beasts, she turned into an unpopulated, unlit alley, as if roaming amongst civilized folk was too much to ask for.
I tightened my grip on my walking stick—a formidable, multi-faceted, and brilliant weapon, precisely because it didn’t look like one—and swerved into the alley. It was empty save for a stinking pile of refuse, a few puddles, and a large, brown cat. I couldn’t hear any feet marching, only the ping of raindrops against an unseen metal object.
“Oh bother,” I said, the hat’s feather now drooping over my face.
There were several doors on either side of the alley. She must have entered one of the closer ones, I decided, for she hadn’t been that far ahead.
I inhaled deeply, searching for a scent to guide me, but all I could detect was decomposing garbage, horse manure, wastewater in the open gutter, and the cat. No werewolf. No woman’s perfume. There was nothing to indicate she’d been there at all.
Well, she certainly didn’t fly away, I thought as I approached the first door. At least, I hadn’t come across any large flyers amongst the English community that the Society for Paranormals & Curious Animals, my employer, oversaw.
The door was locked. Of course it’s locked, I chided myself. Who would leave a backdoor leading into a dodgy alley unlocked? Surely only a madman or a demon, of which there were admittedly more than a few roaming the back roads of London.
I crossed the narrow alley to test the next door, the cat studying me as I passed it. I had as much success as before, which was to say, none.
The cat was studying me?
I remained with my hand on the doorknob. From the main road, which seemed now a very remote place, a horse neighed loudly and a rain-muted shout followed. Small splashes disturbed the puddle near me. Bones cracked from behind me.
I spun about, stick raised, in time to see the cat morphing into the woman in red, her hair the same dark color as the cat’s fur.
“Well, I wasn’t expecting that,” I said.
I was somewhat miffed at my momentary lapse of imagination, something a paranormal investigator could never afford. In hindsight, it was quite obvious the woman had turned into the cat.
I squinted and studied her unusual energy field again. “Ah-ha. You must be from Egypt then, which would explain the unusual energy field.” I leaned toward her and lowered my voice. “I’m not proficient at deciphering Egyptian.”
The woman snarled; she had retained the cat’s pointed eyeteeth. If she’d been a vampire, I’d extract my stash of cinnamon lickety-split, cinnamon being a most effective spice in such circumstances: few paranormal creatures can abide by it. It’s also jolly good against ants.
I was less sure of this beast. Perhaps catnip? If so, I was out of that. Of course, the walking stick worked on all manner of creatures, although more violently than spices. Perhaps, I mused, I should open up one of its numerous compartments in which a tool or weapon was tucked away. After all, I’d never been disappointed by the varied choices my stick supplied me.
I contemplated which would best make sense in this case should the situation deteriorate further. The blowgun with a needle dipped in fast-acting sleeping potion, or the bronze-plated steel fist at the top of my walking stick? I opted for the metal fist which was after all a classic choice.
Thus decided, I cleared my throat as there was no need to prolong the conversation, such as it was, any further. “I am Investigator Beatrice Knight of the Society for Paranormals & Curious Animals.”
The woman snarled at me.
Undaunted, I continued. “As you are in violation of the Society’s Second Mandate—to maintain the secrecy of the Paranormal Realm in general, and the Society and its activities specifically—your presence is required at the Society headquarters for registration and instruction on the standards expected for all in the paranormal community to uphold. I can escort you now or…”
The cat lady leaped at me, her fingers sprouting nails sharp enough to be classified as claws. I stepped to the side just as fast and she knocked her face against the door, at which point I bonked her sternly on the head with the fist end of my walking stick. She slumped to the ground, her bare feet poking out from beneath her dress.
“How peculiar,” I said with a derisive sniff, “to enter a teahouse without shoes on.”
Only much later, after I’d handed the subdued cat lady to other Society operatives for processing, did I mourn the destruction of my fine feather. Fortunately, I didn’t have much time to wallow in remorse and, after all, it was just a feather.
Before we continue, there is one point of clarification I’d like to make. I would never have consented to publishing my memoirs if my dead husband hadn’t insisted on it.
Truth be told, he has become irritatingly persistent since his unfortunate, unnatural, and rather violent demise. Be that as it may, this little volume shall be dedicated to him: Gideon Knight, my ghost husband.
As is common for Englishwomen living under the glorious reign of Queen Victoria, I maintain a diary. That fact is not as surprising as the diary’s contents.
When the words “man,” “eating,” and “lions” appear side by side, the writer can only be in Africa. Before my forced move, I certainly never imagined I’d be shooing possessed zebras and ghost lions out of my vegetable patch.
To those readers who are too tenderhearted to stomach scenes with gore and body parts, please return this volume immediately and find something more suitable to read. Nursery rhymes might be appropriate, or perhaps some romantic poetry, both of which would rapidly put me to sleep.
As for the rest, let us begin…
It’s one thing to be born into poverty—I suppose you accustom yourself to your social status after a while—but it’s quite another matter when you fall into poverty.
Of course, nothing quite so drastic occurred—for the second time in my life, I was saved from the fate of the homeless—but nonetheless, the news was quite grim: Mr. Steward’s investments had failed miserably.
He revealed the bitter truth one morning over breakfast, a most inappropriate time of day to disclose tragic news. It was best to wait for afternoon tea so as not to interfere too terribly with everyone’s digestion.
“My dears,” he said, his face stern but his chin quivering (no doubt in anticipation of his wife’s response), “a variety of factors have conspired against me and I am, to be blunt, in financial ruin.”
His family stared at him with that half-smiling, half-frowning expression that people have upon hearing about an unexpected misfortune, as if caught between the previous happiness and the future sorrow. I continued buttering my toast, for I was no novice to bad, or even dreadful, news.
He cleared his throat and pulled at his cravat as if it were on too tight. “Fortunately, while destitute, we aren’t without options. Or to be specific, one option. An associate of mine has some business interests in Her Majesty’s protectorate of East Africa…”
“What? Are you quite serious, Papa?” Lilly, his eighteen-year-old daughter, asked as she toyed with her perfectly coiffed curls. She was no doubt worried more about her upcoming debut into London society than her father’s business.
Her father attempted to smile. “Yes, my dear, I’m perfectly serious…”
“Mr. Steward, there’s nothing perfect about this,” Mrs. Steward interrupted as she smacked down her cup. I noted the resulting chip and knew one of the servants would be blamed.
“No, of course not, dear,” he said. “I just meant…”
“It’s British East Africa,” young Bobby corrected his father.
“Exactly,” Mr. Steward said, raising his voice slightly. “So my colleague has kindly offered me a position in the Empire’s project to build a railway connecting its various commercial and political interests.”
“Railway?” Mrs. Steward said, her puffy eyes narrowing. “Sounds rather nasty of him. What do you know about railways?”
“Well, I won’t be building the railway myself, just overseeing the accounts,” he said. He licked his lips and again tried to smile, which caused him to appear ill. “Isn’t that exciting? We’ll be part of history.”
“Oh, you’ll be history all right,” I muttered to myself.
“What about Aunt Phyllis?” Lilly cried out.
Mrs. Steward harrumphed, and Mr. Steward shook his head and said no more of his eccentric, widowed aunt and her considerable estate. She had quite cleverly acquired her wealth through marriage to a far older and happily prosperous gentleman who, a few years after the wedding, had conveniently died.
“Aunt Phyllis won’t part with a penny,” Mrs. Steward said with as much condemnation as could be infused into a voice.
“And she’s old,” Bobby blurted out, although what her age had to do with her miserliness, I couldn’t grasp for the life of me.
“The truth is,” Mr. Steward said, his eyes fixed on the basket of toast set before him, “we really have no option but to make our fortunes elsewhere.”
“What do you mean by ‘we’?” Mrs. Steward asked.
She might act flighty and foolish as per the social norm, but underneath all the powdered makeup and frilly dresses, there was a woman with some wit to her. Sadly, that woman was dormant most of the time, crushed by the weight of social expectations and nasty gossip.
“Well, Mrs. Steward, I… You see…” Mr. Steward tugged at his cravat again, his forehead damp, his confidence crumbling under the scrutiny of his family. “It’s just that…” and he mumbled something.
“What did he say?” Lilly asked Bobby, who shrugged his shoulders, having lost interest in the conversation since it didn’t revolve around him.
“I’m sure I misheard him,” Mrs. Steward said as she daintily sipped at her teacup with the chip in it. “Your confused father didn’t really just say we can’t afford for any of us to stay here.”
Mr. Steward gulped. “Ah… Well, I mean to say… Exactly.”
A second chip joined the first as the cup slammed onto the plate with such a force that I was sure the whole set would crack and shatter into numerous, irreparable shards.
Mr. Steward held up his hands as if he could placate his wife with such a useless gesture, when only a pot of gold to pay off all debts could suffice at that point.
“My dear wife,” he pleaded, “I’m completely bankrupt and was forced to sell all our properties, including this very house, to cover the arrears. But don’t fear, we’ll be provided with housing and an adequate salary once in Nairobi.”
In the ominously deep silence that followed, the silence before the great storm, I paused in my breakfasting and pondered the situation. I shuddered to think what sociable options we might find on the shores of that dark continent.
Not that I had so many options in London, mind you.
With no title, property, or inheritance to my name and only a humble savings, dependent on the charity of my relatives and widowed to boot, I could hardly claim to have so many options in the world.
As if to prove the point, the exact moment Mr. Steward was pronouncing our sentence, Bloody Mary floated through the kitchen wall. I detested when phantoms did that. As I always reminded my dead husband, “Just because your body dies doesn’t mean your manners have to die as well.”
Needless to say, I was distracted by the sight of her and missed some of the drama unfolding around the table. I’d seldom seen Bloody Mary up close before, despite my tragic past. The gossipy specter liked to appear as a premonition of bad news, although she usually went to Prof. Runal.
But there she was, floating in front of me, her head bobbing about precariously, it having been partially severed from her neck at the time of her death.
“You’re aware of what they’re saying in the papers?” Mrs. Steward demanded as she grabbed up the newspaper and slapped it against the table. “There’s a war raging on that continent. A war! They call it the…” And she paused to scan the page. “The Boer War. Our valiant British troops are being slaughtered by those heathens in Africa. Slaughtered, Mr. Steward!”
She calmed herself enough to add with a sniff, “Not that I have any doubt our brave soldiers will root them out. But will you really condemn us to live on a battlefield?”
Mr. Steward cleared his throat. “That’s in South Africa, dear. We’re going to East Africa. That’s a good distance away. We should be adequately safe.”
“Should be?” Mrs. Steward raised her voice further.
Meanwhile, Bloody Mary pointed a thoroughly unclean finger at me—really, how rude could she be?—and grimaced.
“Oh dear,” I murmured.
“Exactly,” Mrs. Steward said. “Even Bee agrees with me.”
I stared at the finger. It was Bloody Mary’s way of telling the world (or those who could see her) that trouble was in my near future, and it was of the deadly kind.
Being in the company of humans who were devoid of the capacity to see the supernatural, I couldn’t tell her to float off. So I turned away from her as there was really nothing I could do to avoid whatever fate awaited me.
Mr. Steward was still valiantly trying to explain the intricacies of the situation. Only later did I conclude that on that fateful day he not only lost his business, but his confidence too, not to mention his precarious position of authority in the family.
Speaking of the family, no one was particularly interested in the poor man’s business.
For her part, Mrs. Steward resorted to a near faint and couldn’t be fully revived for the remainder of the day. This wasn’t as disastrous as it sounds, for at least we had a bit of quiet, if not peace, in which to meditate on our misfortunes.
Lilly bemoaned her plight with the statement, “I’m almost eighteen. My grand debut is in a few months. If we go to that God-forsaken place, I shall die a spinster. That is, if a lion doesn’t eat me first.” She made it abundantly and loudly clear that death by lion was the preferred option before dashing away to her room.
Twelve-year-old Robert Junior was the only one genuinely thrilled with the prospect. “Shall we hunt lions?” he demanded of Mr. Steward.
“Well, Nairobi is expected to become a transit point for big game hunters,” Mr. Steward said, avoiding a direct answer and thus another possible confrontation. “It’s viewed as a perfect base from which to go on safaris and game hunts.”
“Hip hip!” Bobby shouted. “I’m going to hunt elephants and lions and tigers.”
I was fairly certain there were no tigers in Africa, but I didn’t bother to point that out. He was too excited about the prospect of butchering unarmed animals. The little monster.
I don’t mean that literally, of course. I wasn’t sure I could tolerate a member of my family being a monster. With respect to Bobby, I meant the term more as a description of character, rather than of biology.
On the bright side, I thought as I contentedly sipped at my third cup of tea, I should be free of smelly werewolves. For surely werewolves were only to be found in northern climes where wolves naturally roamed.
As far as I knew, Africa was inhabited mainly by lions and elephants, which were bad enough but at least had the manners to stay in the wild and not move into the house down the street.
I didn’t consider myself a prejudiced person, but wolf-type creatures were at the top of my list of Least Favorite Beasties. When I was a child, one large and nasty dog bit me quite viciously and almost tore my right ear off, confirming in me a distinct distrust and dislike for all things canine.
At the thought of the bite, I checked that a thick lock of hair was still placed strategically over the ear.
Back to the point: no more smelly werewolves, which just goes to prove that there’s always some good even in the grimmest of news.
Or so I firmly believed.