Hello everyone, I am quite chuffed to announce the Samhain/Halloween launch of the third instalment of the Cecil Herbert Woolley mysteries, A Shadow Over Shanghai. It is a beast of a novella that will hopefully thrill you right down to your opium dens. Please enjoy this sneak peak chapter and on Halloween, please be sure to purchase your copy for the new year. I will add a link when it is ready for sale. Thank you always.
Cecil opened the cabin door to let Clemency out, then followed into the dimly lit corridor. He turned and locked the door. The long passage was lined on one side with cabin doors, on the other windows and ornate wood panelling burnished to a warm glow. The minimal lighting was from wall sconces with red shades. The windows, black from the night, were frosted from the cold air. Blue velvet curtains hung and swayed with the motion of the train. The train was almost empty due to the country’s inner turbulence; the few passengers on this trip were there because they had to be, or were foolish, or both. It seemed as one revolution ended, another more bloody and unrelenting started up. The country was righting wrongs, bringing itself into the 20th century, but what little gain was hard fought and hard won. The past did not want to let go. In the long golden hallways of the palaces, the ghosts that had wandered for millennia did not want to leave.
Woolley unclasped a window and slid it down. Instantly a cold gust of air blew in. “What a place in which to be friendless,” he said and turned to Clemency. “Clemency, darling, thank you.”
“For what, darling?”
He took her in his arms, “For being perfect, perfectly perfect to me.”
“Oh Woolley, honestly, when you say such things I think you really don’t know me at all. How could you think me perfect? I’m an average girl.”
“Ha! Average! Shall I make a list, starting with your lovely brain and ending with your lovely bottom? And no girl can be said ‘average’ who is somehow related to the secret service and loaded. Let’s not forget that. Loaded.”
Clemency kissed Woolley. “It is my money, isn’t it – my assets?”
“Absolutely not. I would love you if you were penniless, a beggar girl. You were made to be loved by a lost misfit like me. We are misfits, darling. Let’s hope there’s an excellent wine list!”
Just then a small man in a white dinner jacket pushed by in a hurry. “Excuse,” he grunted as an afterthought.
“Extraordinary,” said Woolley, frowning and letting go of Clemency while pausing to appreciate the feel of her bare breasts moving beneath the fabric of her dress. “There is a fellow with indigestion.”
“He vaguely resembled a bug, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Not a nice bug,” said Woolley, “not nice.” People are in such a hurry these days, he thought. How can one be in a hurry when they are on a journey of 9,259 kilometers that takes eight days to complete? There’s nothing really to hurry to except perhaps the bar car and the hope of food that doesn’t still have eyes left in it. Woolley pushed up the window and with a gesture, encouraged Clemency forward.
They wound their way along the corridor hesitantly, as the rocking of the train was quite pronounced. Outside the train they caught a shimmer; they looked out to see squares of orange light, small houses, and further off the glow of large fires burning. Clemency shivered. “A festival?”
“A revolution, more than likely. From now on we must be very mindful of what we say and who we talk to.”
“Oh Woolley, is it that bad?”
“I fear it may be, darling. But let us focus on the food and drink before us, and the fact that you and I are gloriously alone on a magical train, warm and in love as we speed through the chilly Siberian night.”
Clemency smiled and slipped her hand into Woolley’s, gripping it tightly. They kissed. More passengers jostled by. Women in traditional costumes, women in elegant dresses and feathers, men in dinner jackets, many in military garb, each acknowledging the couple in their own way.
“I fear we’ve become a spectacle,” said Clemency.
“Wherever we go, my darling, wherever we go.”
They hushed down the carpeted way, eventually reaching the coupling section. Woolley cracked the door and they were hit with an instant explosion of sound and cold. “Lord!” shouted Woolley to Clemency as he quickly pushed the adjacent door and hurried Clemency through. They entered a warm vestibule with more varnished wood and a door with a window of peacocks etched in the glass. Through that was the dining car. The smell of food and cigarette smoke was intoxicating.
“Shall we?” asked Woolley.
“Yes, let’s.” Clemency replied, and they slid the door aside.
The dining car was lush and overheated, half full of glistening patrons. The decorating scheme was suffocated with ornamentation. Gold everywhere. On the ceiling were polished wooden beams with garish patterns in between, and atop the purple velvet plush backs dividing the booths was curling metal work. Each table was lit by a small deco lamp, dangling crystals swaying with the rhythm of the train, and had a small fluted silver vase. Crisp white tablecloths and a patterned carpet that looked of trampled-upon ikons. There was a smattering of tourists, some army officers and a few men who looked all business. The whole gave the impression of a bought second-hand hotel restaurant. Everything made on the cheap, everything lacking that luster that said it was well made, the carpet frayed at the edges, the booths worn, lumpy and ill upholstered. Woolley turned to Clemency, “Brings to mind Teignmouth in South Devon where I acquired food poisoning.”
Clemency tittered, “Charming.”
An unnaturally thin, pale and pomaded maître’ d in an opulent train uniform approached with menus.
“I am Woolley, I believe my man reserved….”
“Mr. Woolley!” purred the man. “No need to introduce, your table is here. I’ve held the best for you.” Then, turning and giving Clemency a wink, “right by the bar.”
He guided them to their table and put down two menus and a wine list. “The cellar is quite good, sir.”
“Worries me a little,” smiled Clemency as they settled into the booth.
“What does, darling?”
“He said, ‘Our cellar is quite good.’ Can you imagine some poor cabin boy having to shimmy down there for some of the 1878?”
Cecil snorted and considered the menu. “Interesting translations here. I will avoid the intestinal chicken – you?”
“Same for the pork eyes. Lord, what could that be?! Not really. Do you think?”
“Should we order them?” smiled Woolley.
A waiter in a lesser version of the maître’ d’s uniform (less frog, more stains) appeared by their table, pressing himself against the edge for balance. “Would you like something to drink?” he said in a thick, unrecognizable accent.
Cecil smiled – foolish question. “I’m assuming it’s vodka from here on in?”
The waiter clicked his heals. “No sir, we also have a number of gins, English gins.”
“Ah. Darling? A martini to refuel, take stock, etc.?”
“Two icy, dry gin martinis please, shook, olives. Thank you. Then, while we’re drinking we’ll think about eating. Sound good to you darling?”
“I’ve never been more in love.”
Suddenly without warning the train ground to a sudden, horrific, screeching halt. The sound of crashing dishes and cutlery was deafening. Many languages and dialects loudly brought to the fore a myriad of deities. The waiter fell back and hit the floor hard. Woolley shot up to offer his assistance. “No, no, please,” said the waiter smoothing his uniform with one hand, his hair with the other. “I am quite used to these disturbances.”
Clemency pulled the cutlery from her lap and placed it back on the table. “What could it be, I wonder?” she asked, looking out at the black night and seeing only her own reflection. In the distance there were three brief flashes of light.
“Ah,” said the waiter.
“Ah? That meant something to you?” questioned Woolley.
“A rebel has been shot, probably found on the train by the guards and chased off. That was gunfire. I’m sure he is dead now. We can move on.”
Cecil looked at Clemency and frowned. “A rebel?”
“Yes,” said the waiter, righting the vase that had toppled and mopping up the water. “They are vermin.” The train jostled and began to move.
“But what will become of him?” asked Clemency.
The waiter leaned forward to straighten the tablecloth and said, “The wolves will dine well tonight.” Then, changing his tone, “It is not of your concern. They are not really people. I will get you your drinks,” and walked away.
Clemency nervously picked up the silver vase. “What a lovely blue flower,” she said.
“Siberian squill, late this year,” said Woolley.
Clemency smiled and reached for a cigarette. Woolley leaned over and lit it. She couldn’t help but notice his hand was shaking.
With drinks ordered, Clemency cast her gaze out of the window. “Oh Woolley, what is this place?”
“End of the old, start of the new. Kicking and screaming.”
“Quite right Mr. Woolley,” said the large man in a breathy, gravelly voice from the booth beside them. “Forgive me,” he continued. “Let me introduce myself. Moffatt St. Andrew Woodside-Chang. It is an honour to finally meet you.” He moved his head as in a bow, losing his chin into the folds of his neck. “And you must be Miss Clemency de la Tour, an honour also.” With great delicacy he raised a teacup with his enormous hand as a kind of toast, his movements accentuated by a strong scent of patchouli.
Cecil took him in but could not place him. He resembled a frog, a large amphibious creature stuffed into a well-tailored suit. “I can’t say we’ve met before, forgive me, have we?”
“No sir, I only know you from reputation, your war record of course speaks for itself. But I’ve been fascinated by your work, especially in the occult, for some time. You have not heard of me?”
“I confess I have not, I apologize.”
The man made a small moue of discontent, “I concern myself mostly with the East. The western Occult I find is only interested in bickering, cliché, rebellion, profit and scandal. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Order of the Golden Dawn? Yes?” He paused dramatically and dipped his bejewelled hand into a bowl of rose water. “The H.B. of L., the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor?”
Woolley smiled, the drinks had arrived. He watched with anticipation as the waiter delicately placed the frosted glass in front of him. After the server had retreated Woolley held up one finger and taking the glass, sipped. He smiled again, “Ah.”
Moffatt St. Andrew Woodside-Chang chortled. Clemency frowned. Woolley visibly came back into himself, breathed in and began, “The Golden Dawn, why of course, you were a member? The second order, I am guessing.” Woolley assumed the man was lying.
Woodside-Chang settled back and smiled, “I was a sub-imperator tasked to gather wisdom from the East. My mother is English, my father Cantonese. I was born in Macau but educated in England. Eton, Oxford, cruelty, isolation, depression, buggery.” He waved his hands as if pushing away a dark cloud. “My parents died by mysterious circumstances when I was at Oxford.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Perhaps you’ve read my paper on The Lost Canon of Proportions of the Egyptians? No? No matter.” Again, he waved his hand. “People do not want the math, they want the romance, the mystery.” Splotches of red began to form on his face as he made a fist and shook it. “The violence.”
“Quite!” said Woolley, settling into his drink. Clemency sipped hers and under the table kicked Woolley.
“I was devastated by the death of my parents. I loved them both … deeply. But with their passing came a great light, a small fortune, shares in a tin mine, which allowed me to … do what I like, as they say. Esoterica was my obsession, the dark arts, alchemy. With this freedom I could pursue these interests without distraction. I took a house in London and began my great work.”
The waiter arrived. Woolley signalled another drink. Clemency, sensing a long night, decided to pace herself. “A mineral water, please.”
“But of course,” said the waiter. “And your food?”
“Ah, we are still considering…”
“Stay away from the meat,” Woodside-Chang said. “It’s not what they say. Keep to the fish, at least I think it’s fish.”
The waiter frowned.
Woolley smiled, “I’ll have the fish.”
“And the lady?”
Clemency snapped shut the menu. “The same. Will there be vegetables?”
“Cabbage, carrots and beets,” replied the waiter.
Woolley smiled and passed the waiter his empty glass. “I’m sure it will all be excellent.” He turned to St. Andrew Woodside-Chang. “And so in London you found your kind, people who thought like you?”
“Ha!” the man barked loudly. Startled, Clemency dropped the fork she was fiddling with. “My own kind! Charlatans! They knew nothing of the hermetic order, nothing of the ways of the elders! They were imposters, bowing down to celebrities, letting anyone in who could pay the dues. My own kind!” He ruminated, “Ha! Like life, like everything, the great religions, the great prophecies, it all started with a lie.”
“Ah, so were you able to learn anything from them?” asked Woolley, clearly enjoying himself.
“I learned to watch my ways, to trust only what I learn myself. These adepts, these so-called seers, they were all fools. I took what I could and then moved on. I read their books, slept with their wives.” He paused, making sure he had shocked, and seeing he hadn’t, continued, “Oh yes, sex magik … so important to those English prudes. They published The Mystery of Eros and tried to recruit married couples to, ahem, copulate while they danced about in some half-understood mystical energy. So English, making the servants do the work…” He paused. He had become visibly agitated and the violent red splotches on his face had turned to a solid coating of vermillion.
Woolley was amused, Clemency appalled.
Woodside-Chang took out a large handkerchief and wiped his wet brow. Taking a sip of tea, he wheezed. “I do apologize, we are in a dining car, traveling across the vast and haunted tundra of Siberia. We are not in some English salon arguing like school children. I apologize.” His voice trailed off. “As you can see, these matters matter much to me.”
Woolley smiled. The second drink had come. “My dear sir, without passion there is no forward, no, ah, thrust.” He looked at Clemency, who frowned. “I do understand. But I sense there is disappointment to this story.”
“I learned nothing. An Oxfordshire vicar with a science kit in his basement looking for the Philosopher’s Stone. Nudists and madmen all saying they know the way. Bosh and nonsense. But I had to see if perhaps they did have some truth, some golden knowledge. After working my way through all their rituals, I came to the realization they had none. Like all the great religions, they were just making it up. The sublime arrives, as Mr. Burke wrote, when religion begins its retreat.” He closed his eyes and inhaled dramatically. He opened them and smiled. “Perhaps I was a little too radical for them. I do not pretend to be a comfort…” He laughed, then made eye contact with Clemency, and said very quietly, “I am a curse!”
“Oh dear,” Clemency said, again kicking Woolley under the table.
“Yes, well, let us hope you do not curse us fellow travellers,” replied Woolley.
“Mr. Woolley, you have me wrong! I find you far and above most of my supposed ‘kind’. You are a pioneer, I could learn from you.”
Woolley didn’t like the sound of that.
The waiter arrived with their order. The fish could have been some sort of bass, Woolley wasn’t sure, and as promised, it was surrounded by cabbage, beets and carrots expertly arranged. The plates were lovely and large, printed with the logo of the train line – a scrolling text of T.S.E. intertwined. As the purple of the beet juice ran into the fish portion, Clemency could not but feel foreboding. St. Andrew Woodside-Chang sat back in his booth and lit a brown cheroot, keeping his eyes fixed on Clemency. Settling back, he exhaled a swirl of acrid blue smoke into the air. “So, Mr. Woolley, what brings you to the East?”
Woolley was fishing fish bone out of the white meat with extreme concentration. “Pleasure, as Oscar Wilde said. What should bring anyone anywhere?”
Woodside-Chang leaned forward and smiled. “Come, come Mr. Woolley, you can’t expect me to believe that. You of all people, travelling to a place that at the moment is so dangerous for an Englishman that even your embassy has advised against visiting. Surely you are here on business.”
Clemency was now finding menace in everything that St. Andrew Woodside-Chang said. She wanted to leave and was about to kick Woolley again when he kicked her first. She squeaked.
Woolley put down his fork. “It is a simple holiday…. Seeing the sights, visiting old friends, attending to some matters.”
“Ah! Then not just for pleasure,” enthused Woodside-Chang, clapping his large fleshy hands.
Clemency did not want to talk further with Woodside-Chang staring at her as he was.
He chortled with glee. “Let me guess… you meddled where you should not have. You opened a portal, you angered a spirit.”
Woolley pounded his knife down upon the table. “Good god man, not everything is of the spirit.” Woolley was visibly angry, a rarely seen state to Clemency. She reached out and put her hand on his. “I am sorry darling…the war… ,” he said quietly
St. Andrew Woodside-Chang bowed. “I, too, am sorry. I played Pandora and I apologize. I was too ill to fight in that horrific conflict, and I must be more sensitive to the feelings …”
“No,” Woolley interrupted, “you did not know, and it is fine.” Woolley took a drink and frowned. Water. He signalled the waiter, held up his martini glass and made a sweeping gesture which the waiter assumed meant, ‘keep them coming.’ Ominously the lights in the dining car dimmed, went out and then came back on. Clemency would forever be haunted by the vision of St. Andrew Woodside-Chang’s huge greasy face glowing in the orange light of his cheroot.