Chapter One: The Great Awi Bubu
March 23, 1907
I hate being followed. I especially hate being followed by a bunch of lunatic adults playing at being occultists. Unfortunately, the Black Sunners were out in full force today. I’d spotted the first one on High Street, and by the time I’d reached the Alcazar Theater, there were two more on my tail.
I glanced at the sparse crowd waiting outside the rundown theater, my heart sinking when I saw that Sticky Will wasn’t there yet. Not knowing what else to do, I got in line for the ticket window, then checked to see if the men would follow. One leaned against the building across the street, and another one lounged against a lamppost, pretending to read the paper.
"If you aren’t going to purchase a ticket, get out of the way," a coarse voice said.
I pulled my gaze away from my pursuers to find the woman in the ticket booth glaring at me. While my attention had been focused elsewhere, the line had moved forward, and it was now my turn. "Sorry," I muttered, setting my coin on the counter.
She snatched it up and shoved a green paper ticket at me. "Next?" she called out.
As I left the ticket booth, Will was still nowhere in sight. Keeping a close eye on the Black Sunners for any sudden moves, I ventured over to the playbill pasted to the crumbling brick wall.
THE GREAT AWI BUBU!
REAL EGYPTIAN MAGIC!
The lurid picture showed a man in traditional Egyptian garb raising a mummy.
I was relatively sure that whatever the Great Awi Bubu did, it was not Egyptian magic. He was most likely some charlatan taking advantage of London’s heightened interest in all things Egyptian.
Not that I’d had anything to do with that—well, not intentionally anyway. All those mummies running loose in London hadn’t really been my fault. How was I to know that there was such a thing as a staff that could raise the dead? Or that it would be lurking in the Museum of Legends and Antiquities’ basement? It could have happened to anyone.
Sticky Will had been instrumental in fixing the situation, and in the process he’d learned a little more about my unique relationship with the artifacts in my father’s museum. Rather too much, if you asked me. But it couldn’t be helped.
Oh, he didn’t know I was the only one who could sense the vile curses and black magic still clinging to the artifacts. Or the true extent of my knowledge of the ancient Egyptian rituals and practices that I’d used to remove the curses. But he had seen some of the magic in action. And he’d seen what unscrupulous people were willing to do to get their hands on it. Consequently, Will now spent a large portion of his time scouring London in search of even more Egyptian magic, determined to prove that he was ready, willing, and able to take on the dark forces that surrounded us.
Which was why I now stood in front of the Alcazar Theater, ticket clutched in my hand, after everyone else had gone inside. The Black Sunners across the street—they called themselves scorpions, in honor of an old Egyptian myth—also seemed to realize that the crowd had thinned. With no one else about, one of the scorpions—Gerton, I believe— decided to make his move. Stepping away from the building, he headed across the street.
Will or no Will, I had to get inside. As I turned for the door, I heard a loud, wet, snuffling sound from behind the ticket booth. I perked up. There was only one person I knew who could turn a runny nose into a calling card: Snuffles.
I hurried around the corner, nearly bumping into one of Will’s younger brothers. He wore a loud, plaid morning coat that was so large it nearly dragged on the ground. His sleeves had been rolled up several times, and he peered up at me from under an enormous bowler hat that was held in place by his rather remarkable ears. "Yer late," he said.
"No, I’m not. I’ve been waiting here for ages. Where’s Will?"
"’E’s inside already. Sixth row from the stage, center section, aisle seat. And ’e says to ’urry. The show’s about to start."
"Aren’t you coming?"
"I’ll meet you inside," he said, then disappeared back down the street.
With one final glance in Gerton’s direction, I proceeded to the theater entrance, gave my ticket to the porter, and went inside.
The lobby was empty and I could hear the feeble music of an out-of-tune piano. I opened the door that led to the auditorium and found that the lights had already been turned down. I let my eyes adjust to the dark, relieved when I finally recognized Will in the sixth row. He was easy to spot, actually, as he kept turning in his seat and looking around.
For me, no doubt.
He spotted me, then waved. I hurried to the empty seat next to him.
"Wot took you so long?" he asked.
"I’ve been waiting out front for ages," I said. "Where were you?"
Before I could answer, Snuffles and another boy appeared in the aisle. "Let us in," Snuffles said, a bit urgently. I turned my knees to the side so he could work past me. The second boy removed his tweed cap as he scooted by and I recognized the thin, pinched features of another one of Will’s brothers—Ratsy. We had met briefly aboard the Dreadnought
during a rather distracting set of circumstances. Nevertheless, he gave me a nod of greeting.
"How did you get in here?" I whispered to Snuffles.
He looked at Will, who pointedly wouldn’t meet my gaze. "We used a side entrance, miss. Now ’ush. It’s about to start."
Just then, the piano music became louder, more jangling. The curtain opened. I settled back in the lumpy, threadbare seat and resolved to enjoy myself.
The stage held two fake palm trees, a pyramid that looked as if it was made of papier-mâché, and half a dozen burning torches. A sarcophagus sat in the middle of the stage. The music stopped, and the theater was so quiet you could hear the hiss of the gas lamps. Slowly, the lid to the sarcophagus began to open. It fell against the side with a thud, then a figure rose up from its depths.
"The Great Awi Bubu," a loud voice intoned from somewhere offstage, "will now perform amazing feats of Egyptian magic. This magic is old and dangerous, and the audience is advised to do exactly as the magician says in order to avoid any misfortune."
The magician was a skinny, wizened man who did indeed look to be of Egyptian descent. His head was bald and rather large. He wore a pair of wire spectacles perched on his beakish nose; it gave him the air of a very old baby bird. He wore a tunic of white linen with a colorful collar that looked vaguely like ancient Egyptian dress.
He stepped toward a basket near the front of the stage. Will elbowed me in the ribs. "Watch this now," he whispered.
watching," I whispered back. What did he think, that I was sitting here with my eyes closed?
Awi Bubu pulled a flutelike instrument from the folds of his robe and began to play a strange, haunting melody. Slowly, he sat down in front of the basket and crossed his legs. After another moment of music playing, the lid of the basket began to rise. It swayed gently, then fell to the side.
"You must all be very quiet," the announcer told us in a hushed voice. "Any sudden noise could be disastrous."
A moment later a small, dark form appeared at the lip of the basket. It hesitated for a moment, then darted free and scurried over to the magician. Several more forms followed. Scorpions—scores of them. I shivered as they scuttled their way up Awi Bubu’s legs, onto his chest, and across his arms. One even climbed up his neck to rest on his bald head, like a macabre hat. Throughout it all, ot...