A Howl of Wolves: New Excerpt
By Judith Flanders
A Howl of Wolves by New York Times bestselling author Judith Flanders once again brilliantly fuses mystery with humor in this fourth installment of her critically acclaimed Sam Clair series.
Sam Clair figures she’ll be a good sport and spend a night out at the theater in support of her upstairs neighbors, who have small parts in a play in the West End. Boyfriend (a Scotland Yard detective) and all-around good sport Jake Field agrees to tag along to what is apparently an extra-bloody play filled with dramatic, gory deaths galore. So Sam expects an evening filled with faux fatalities. Until, that is, the curtain opens to the second act, revealing a dummy hanging from the rafters, who’s been made up to look suspiciously like Campbell Davison, the director of the production.
When Sam sees the horrified faces of the actors onstage, she realizes that this is indeed not a dummy, but Davison himself―and this death is not part of the show. Now everyone wants to know: who killed Campbell Davison? As Sam learns more about the murdered man, she discovers that he wasn’t all that well-liked amongst the cast and crew, so the suspect list grows. The show must go on―but Sam knows a murderer must be apprehended, so she sets out to find out what happened, and why.
“There are thirteen dead people here.” Jake was accusing.
I didn’t think it was my fault. “I know. I told you that,” I reminded him.
“I thought you were making it up.”
“I don’t make up dead people.” I replayed the sentence in my head. It sounded worse the second time around. “I mean, I didn’t need to make them up. Thomas Kyd already did.” It wasn’t as if I’d gone out and hired a special offer, baker’s dozen hit man.
Jake didn’t respond, his head bowed, turning the pages of his programme ferociously, as though, if he could just find the right place, a play that had been written more than four hundred years ago would suddenly have a different ending.
“Why are we doing this?” Jake brought me back to the present.
“We’re doing this because we’re nice people.”
In truth, he’s nicer than I am. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a nice person. I don’t race old ladies to the last seat on the bus, or at least, not too often. I pat the heads of small children, if they happen to stroll past. And—I couldn’t think of anything else I did that made me a nice person. I’d like to believe I’m a paragon of virtue, someone who is always late because she stopped so frequently to rescue small furry animals from random perils. In reality, I became an editor in a publishing house for a reason. I spend so much time inside my own head that imperilled animals would have to claw their way up my leg, sit on my shoulder, and bat at my nose before I looked up from my book long enough to notice them.
We were in a theatre, though, so the odds of small furry animals requiring assistance were slim. “It’s not just for Kay, it’s for Bim,” I said firmly.
Kay and Anthony were my upstairs neighbours. They were actors, successful enough that they were regularly cast in big parts in small productions outside London, or in small parts in big productions in London. This was one of the latter, a West End company fronted by one television star and one film star–slash–theatrical legend. Kay was only playing the lead actress’s maid, but, as she said cheerfully, she got to die in a pool of blood onstage. Each to her own, of course, but dying bloodily eight times a week had never been my ambition. Especially since Bim, Kay and Anthony’s son, also had a part in the play. I hadn’t realized that six-year-olds watching their mothers die wreathed in gore was in the good parenting guide. But apparently it was, as Bim had acted it out for me with relish, several times. He knew every nuance, since he played the same leading lady’s page, and was onstage when Kay was killed.
He also spent a lot of his time running around my garden, quavering “My deeeeear,” in an affected, high-pitched voice. Then he mimed reading a script, daintily licking his ring finger before turning each page with it, peering over an invisible pair of reading glasses in a manner that Kay swore could easily have him mistaken for the director’s twin, if twins came in sets where one was half the height, and less than a tenth the age, of the other. Nonetheless, he was having a good time, and attending the first night of a play wasn’t exactly a hardship, even without friends in the cast.
Jake wasn’t quite as convinced. The play was The Spanish Tragedy, and I’d made the mistake of looking it up and attempting to pass on the plot summary when the evening was first planned. After I’d described the first couple of deaths, Jake had begun to mumble about not going to the theatre to watch the same sort of thing he saw at work all day.
I considered asking what the CID estimated the annual rate of death by rapier at, but I’d bitten it back. Then I lost points for that heroic suppression of snark by patting myself on the back. Smug wasn’t a pretty look, even mentally.
While Jake read, I watched a couple two rows ahead of us. They were greeting, and being greeted by, half the audience. They didn’t look like actors. The man was in his seventies, I guessed, and gave the impression he’d rather be spending his evening in front of the telly with a hot drink. The woman didn’t look any more like a performer, but she was exactly where she wanted to be, at the centre of attention. She was probably a decade younger than her partner, although she was dressed as if she hoped everyone would think it was two, or even three: a lot of Polyfilla had gone into both her face and farther down. I didn’t feel unkind staring at her chest, since her dress was cut lower than most bikinis: pay and display.
I was pulled away from my supercilious judging of total strangers by a hand on my shoulder. I turned, and there was Anthony, together with a couple he introduced as Kay’s parents. We did polite London chitchat—did you come far, isn’t traffic terrible this evening—and some parental stuff—did they get a chance to see Kay perform often, wasn’t Bim adorable in his page’s costume—and then the lights went down. I settled in. There’s nothing I like better than an onstage bucket of blood.
Jake appeared not to agree, if his shifting about was any indication. And initially I could see his point. The first act seemed to be entirely made up of people telling each other what had already happened, and the director and designer had only upped the difficulty by setting the production in the twentieth century, in what looked to be a Soviet courtroom. I could see no obvious reason for that decision, while the uniforms made it hard to tell the characters apart.
Then the play captured me. The important things—in the sixteenth century, a Soviet courtroom, or now, in a West End theatre—were still the same: betrayal, love, revenge. By the time the interval came, Jake’s arm must have been black and blue where I’d grabbed it every time a weapon came out.
In the second half, he reached for my hand as the lights went down, either in a show of empathy, or to try to ensure he retained some circulation in his arm as the bodies began to pile up onstage. Kay was number four to go, and I discovered that Bim’s garden re-enactments had been uncannily accurate, so much so that I was surprised to hear her own deep voice, rather than a high-pitched six-year-old’s reciting the lines.
We were, by my count, up to the tenth body when things went astray. According to the story, the tenth body wasn’t in reality the tenth at all, but belonged to a character who had been killed before the interval, whose body was now being displayed by his anguished father, who drew back a curtain to reveal it hanging from a rafter, all green and mildewed and nasty, one hand clawing outward in a ferocious death-spasm, fingers splayed and frozen in the air.
Certainly, to modern eyes it was ludicrous, and you would expect the odd nervy giggle in the audience. But it was in fact the cast that started it. They worked hard to cover things up, but the moment the curtain was pulled back, everyone onstage stuttered and stumbled, all of them refusing to look at one another, shoulders silently shaking.
It spread quickly. These were regular first-nighters, theatre people themselves, or the families and friends of theatre people. Whispers and not-so-smothered snickers buzzed through the house.
Jake turned to me. Without taking my eyes from the stage, I shrugged. I had no idea what was happening. Then Anthony leaned forward from the row behind. “The dummy’s been made up to look like Campbell Davison,” he whispered.
I shook my head. Who? the headshake said.
“The director. Someone is playing a practical joke.” He paused. “And someone is going to get sacked.” He sounded amused and appalled in equal measure.
A hissed “Shhh” had me turning guiltily back to the stage. So the dummy was Bim’s My deeear man come to life. Or, rather, to death. Kay had implied he wasn’t universally loved, and this prank suggested that she wasn’t alone in that view.
The cast doggedly continued, but no one was paying any attention anymore. All eyes were glued to the figure swinging at the rear. I had no idea what Campbell Davison looked like, my entire knowledge of the man being based on Bim’s imitation, but I could see now that the dummy bore no resemblance to the young actor from the first half. This body was stockier, an old man’s shape, and, under the green mould makeup, the face was older too. The hair, which at first sight had appeared blonde, was grey, and longer than the brutal 1930s buzz cuts sported by the men in the cast.
In theory, this was the climax of the play. But even the ghost of revenge, who summed up the moral after the lead committed suicide, promising eternal torment for those who caused misery to their fellow men, could make no impact on the so-carefully-not-laughing actors and the smirking audience.
That is, until the curtain came down. In the few seconds between the blackout and the curtain rising for the cast bows, the performers had sobered, some now looking downright frightened. I imagined that they realized that while physically they were facing a delighted audience, tomorrow’s reviews would be very different.
When I turned to Jake, though, he was as sober as the actors, checking his phone hurriedly rather than joining in the applause. A shake of his head, and he put it in his pocket. “Come on,” he said, pulling me up. “We need to go.”
We did? I would have stayed to the end, if only to say the right things to Kay’s parents and Anthony, but getting up the endless stairs before the crowd wasn’t a bad idea. I bent and whispered a few She was marvellous sentences to them, but Jake had my coat, my umbrella, my bag, and me—he really wanted out.
“Mr. Hustle,” I grumbled at his back as he sped up the stairs two at a time, phone out once more.
“There’s no signal down there,” he replied, as though that were an answer.
I knew that there wasn’t any football, or he would have dodged out at the interval to check, so I had no idea what had made this mad dash necessary.
“Do you know where the stage door is?” he asked, before continuing without waiting for a reply. “You’ll be all right going home on your own?”
Going home on my own? I was about to repeat that out loud, when he pushed open the street door. Three police cars, lights flashing wetly in the damp night air, were double-parked in front of us. Another two were lined up in an alley beside the theatre.
Jake steered us over to the nearest one, pulling out his warrant card as he went. “Field, CID,” he said to the uniformed constable blocking the alley. “I was in the audience. I saw it.”
I stumbled to a halt.
“Oh god, he was really dead, wasn’t he? That was Campbell Davison. That wasn’t a dummy.”
Copyright © 2018 Judith Flanders.