Authors: Anthony Flacco
Intelligent historical mysteries. International tales of intrigue.
PRAISE FOR THE LAST NIGHTINGALE
for the magic of believing
AND TO RU
for loving me back
I gladly offer well-deserved thanks to Jane von Mehren and editor Paul Taunton. To Paul for his excellent editorial input, and to Jane for running Mortalis Books with integrity and soul. This is a publication group any writer would be proud to join. I am grateful to be among them.
Equal gratitude to all readers of
The Last Nightingale,
my first book with Mortalis, for your generous enthusiasm and support. In the end, dear reader, all of us are here for you.
I must not forget my loyal graduate interns, who work so tirelessly up here at my hilltop literary bunker for no more reward than their daily composition drills and the Day-Glo “Graduate Intern” vests provided for onsite use. Why, when I think of the thankless jobs they cheerfully do, every single day: manning the guard posts down at the gates, patting down visitors for handheld electronic entertainment devices and then turning them over to the head intern. (He has asked to be credited as “Flashmaster” D. O. Widdit. In the famous
Literary Bunker Group Shot
making its rounds on the Internet, D. O. is the huge one with the sledgehammer.) Also high praise for my onsite visitors’ counselor here at the bunker, Maryann Francois, M.BS., who so expertly defuses the visitors’ reactions when D.O. grinds up their devices in his big wooden bin at the end of the driveway.
…The millions of fans of young nephews Matthew and Daniel may rest assured, it appears that nothing can be done to stop the lads, who will loudly sing into your face whenever the urge strikes. On the other side of town, nephews Drasko and Nikola remain forces to be dealt with and admired, while solitary niece Nicole enters adulthood with lovely strength and poise, and her brother Jordan greets the world as a young officer in the U.S. Navy. Up in Seattle, Jill emerges as a freshly minted young adult with a quick mind and gentle humor, while her brother Scott is hard at work on, if I have it right, some sort of mind-meld technology back-engineered from the Roswell crash, or—it’s complex. My brother Dino is actually learning Mandarin and traveling alone all around China, brother Nick is holed up in a think tank figuring out how to make things to defend people from other things, and brother Dominic has become so scary good with Photoshop that all bow before him, lest a
photograph should just happen to appear on the Internet, showing…
JANUARY 25TH, 1915
THE PACIFIC MAJESTIC THEATRE—SAN FRANCISCO’S FINEST
HE FAMED MESMERIST
James “J.D.” Duncan paced backstage, practicing his
And Now You Are Hypnotized!
glare, the one that people recognized from his posters and always wanted to see in person. Each time he passed over the thin crack in the floor that ran across the backstage area, he carefully adjusted his stride to hit it on the middle of his boot sole. At a moment when his confidence needed to be at its peak, it reinforced his faith in himself to tempt the stage gods with an arrogant disregard for stepping on cracks.
At least the boys in the stage crew had followed their strict instructions, this time: clear the backstage floor of any obstacles, then leave the “Master of the Secret Powers of Mesmerism” alone to pace and concentrate, prior to the show.
J.D. sipped away on his customary preshow tea, to warm up the old throat. But he still felt thirsty, dried out even, while he strode back and forth in the darkness.
He paused to listen in on the announcer, who was busily warming up the crowd like a man in love with his own voice. The house was packed with over a thousand of the city’s most elite residents, so the silver-tongued devil out there was taking forever to get around to the introduction. J.D. hated it whenever some local blowhard master of ceremonies sapped the energy out of the folks before the star of the evening arrived onstage. It sometimes forced him to use up half his show on audience humiliation gags, just to get them stoked back up to a workable energy level.
It occurred to him then that he was feeling
annoyed over tonight’s delay. His fingernails dug into his clenched fists. He could sense the urge to action, deep in his muscles, and he thought what a welcome relief it would be to feel the announcer’s cheekbones crush beneath his knuckles.
Then, abruptly, as if with the flick of an electric light switch, he found himself full of strange sensations. His skin began crawling with anxiety, ready to break out in a heat rash. This was odd, on a winter evening, backstage—where no heaters were permitted.
An unpleasant vibration came from somewhere deep in his skull; he was grinding his teeth, biting down hard. He forced his jaw muscles to relax, but within seconds his teeth were clenched again.
When a slight movement caught the far corner of one eye, he whipped around in reflex and found himself facing the backstage fire door. The exit led to the back alley, next to the trash bins. It seemed as if the door clicked back into place just as he turned around to face it.
But someone leaving? Unlikely. Civilians were not allowed back there. And who in the crew would leave by the backstage fire door when a show was under way, and risk being heard out in the house? Nobody who wanted to keep his job.
So he had believed. Now his heartbeat boomed inside his chest. Duncan told himself to relax. But before he completed the thought, another bit of motion caught at the corner of his eye, from the other side. This time, there was nothing there.
That made him wonder if he had just imagined the first one, whatever it was. He could not be certain now.
His sense of anxiety grew worse. His body was an electric motor fed with a steadily increasing flow of current. He had no way to turn it down. His skin broke into a hot sweat and a second flash of body heat took him by surprise.
This never happened before a show. James “J.D.” Duncan was always cucumber cool under pressure; it was how he kept ahead of the folks.
He took the last quaff of the tepid tea, but instead of calming him, it burned him inside. The feeling of heat radiated through his gut and gathered in his bones. His body seemed to gain ten degrees of temperature in that single swallow. He felt as if he must be glowing in the dark.
Only then did he realize that he was pacing in a furious circle, with his footsteps barely covered by the droning announcer onstage. The man cruelly pontificated about the evening’s cause for celebration: “
San Francisco’s First Intercontinental Telephone Line—All the Way to New York!
Still, J.D. knew that the folks out there, born high or low, were all waiting for
right where he wanted them, needed them to be. Every single one of them had come hoping to be amazed by this new American phenomenon of public hypnosis. Despite any worldly poses that an individual audience member might strike, he knew that every one of them hoped that ol’ J.D. really would deliver just as it was promised in the advance ballyhoo—and that his spells would truly
Give Strength to the Weak!
Thus the folks came primed to expect hypnotic spells with the power to tap each individual’s essential life force and “
open it like a valve in a pipeline!
” Tonight—as on every performance night—J.D.’s bubble of a reputation would only survive to the extent that he successfully walked the tightrope between what people would barely tolerate and what they would reject outright.
At least the tightrope was wide. After all, the new century was promising that the 1900s would bring an age of scientific miracles. Such things seemed to be emerging in every direction. Why, in less than a month, the entire world would be focused upon the city of San Francisco, freshly reborn after the devastating Great Earthquake and fires of 1906. Soon, because of the coming world’s fair, the Pan-Pacific International Exposition, the new city would be ablaze with all the fanciest wonders of the technological era.
Everybody in the audience had arrived at the theatre with their disbelief already surrendered, primed to witness unusual things. They all knew that their young century was entering a time of great expectations. To mesmerize such people did not involve any penny-ante sleight of hand; the skill probed much deeper than that. J.D. knew that good mesmerism was truly sleight of mind.
Even the hardnoses in the audience lived in the same world as everybody else, and each one carried his own expectations of encountering the next man-made eyepopper on any given day. The power of that very sense of expectation was the raw clay of J.D.’s work. How fine it was to be up there on that stage, invisibly sculpting the folks’ sense of social inhibition, then standing back and watching their bodies happily dance along, released.
He jerked—startled—as another bit of motion caught his attention. It was as if a shadow darted past. He whipped around to confront the source but again found nothing. This time the sense of frustration made him cringe.
J.D. searched for a reason to remain calm, assuring himself that these sensations did not necessarily mean he was coming down with some sudden illness. They even seemed suspiciously familiar, an exaggerated version of those slight visual anomalies and odd sensations that he had experienced on a few rare occasions.
It only happened back in the beginning, when he got careless in his measurements and took a bit too much of the elixir. Experience soon taught him that a few extra grains could be enough to make the dose feel excessive.
But tonight, an overdose of the elixir, even a pinch, was impossible. He had never taken it before a show. Never.
J.D. checked the announcer’s patter again. Finally, the man was nearing the point of calling out his introduction. But now it was a different sense of urgency that overwhelmed him; he had to know what was happening to him before he faced a crowd of a thousand of the city’s elite.
He fled to his dressing room, just a few yards down the hall, but he stopped cold in the doorway. He stood staring into the room, toward his dressing table, where there was a dire message spelled out by the objects placed there. Its meaning was as threatening as a graffito scrawled in blood.
His fine leather pouch, the one filled with the precious powdered elixir—it was sitting out. Right there in the open. The godforsaken thing was smack in the middle of the tabletop, in front of his makeup mirror!
This was also an impossibility. He never left the elixir sitting out, anywhere.
Worse: A little of the powder had been spilled about the bag itself and onto the table. Who on earth would spill it like that, wasting it? And why had they expected him to have it, in the first place?
Is it the Germans? Do they want it back?
His stomach lurched; somebody had found out about his secret hiding place. Not only that, they had been foolish enough to get their hands on a medicinal substance like this one, only to abandon their big find. This was no casual robbery. He had been invaded by someone who realized on some level that J.D. could not pursue the matter with the police—that would compromise his need for secrecy regarding the elixir. More importantly, it could reveal the condition that made it necessary for him. His image would become a joke.
Whoever had done this, he felt certain that they understood little or nothing about the substance. They would have stolen it, otherwise.
And if they didn’t know what it was, why would they load my tea with it? What could they gain by
With that grim question, J.D.’s own logic confronted him. He felt his spirits plummet. The conclusion was terrible but true, like his mirror reflection on a hungover morning, and it left him with a single, ugly conclusion.
Nobody could have done this except for him.
It was self-evident. The problem was the stubborn fact that he had never once taken his elixir before a performance. He had a healthy fear of its power. It had to be used with great care, each dose trimmed to the minimum for effectively clearing his fogged brainpan and reacquiring his powers of recent memory. That was all.
Even under the proper dosage, he sometimes succumbed to overpowering urges to jump and dance, or to fall into spontaneous bursts of giddy laughter. These things, in front of the public, in front of an
could do more than threaten his respectability; they could ruin his legacy—precisely the opposite of the elixir’s purpose in his life.
The crystalline powder saved his life every day by allowing him to hide the terrible symptoms, but the stuff was not entirely controllable. He had always known that it was unsafe for performance situations.
So why did the open bag sit there, mocking him?
He hurried over to it, retied it, and relocked it into the false bottom of his makeup kit. He decided that this time he would carry the entire kit with him and leave it offstage, just outside the audience’s view, so he could keep his eye on it throughout the show.
He snapped down the lid and stood up, ready to return to the stage area, but he was moving too fast. The blood rushed down and out of his brain, and seemed to swirl away through his feet. The walls swayed like window curtains. He fought to regain his balance.
Ever the professional, J.D. also took advantage of that moment of inactivity to listen for his cue…and noticed to his horror that everything was silent. The idiot announcer had just called out his introduction while he stood there too stunned to hear it.
Fear of failure sent a helpful blast of adrenaline through him that steadied his balance and cleared his vision. Habit overtook him. He rushed out through the stage wings, automatically straightening his coat and tie.
But things began to happen too fast. Everything that he looked at seemed to be extra shiny, as if somebody had put a coating of wax over life itself and then buffed it to a high gloss. His eyeballs felt a size too big; there was a slight tickle in his eye sockets whenever he shifted his gaze.
J.D. felt a wad of dread hit him. “Elixir” or not, there was far too much of the stuff in his system, much more than anything he had ever experienced. He was in no condition to get onto a stage. He could hardly predict his own reactions.
He had no business being out in public at all. In his present state, he belonged in his private hotel suite, or perhaps even a hospital bed, but certainly not downstage center.
Some of the audience members were even on the very board that held his contract for nearly a year’s worth of employment. It included his luxury suite at the Fairmont Hotel and his generous per diem.
How many doses is this, all at once?
It struck him that it made no difference. The fact remained that J.D. was committed to giving this performance, in this time and in this place. It simply could not be allowed to matter that he might very well be reduced to incoherence by the overdose, or that, as his opening number, he might suffer a seizure and die onstage.
He dropped the makeup case where he would be able to see it, just barely offstage, then paused in the last bit of shadow before stepping out into the glare. Habit carried him through his last-moment ritual. He went over his very first line and simultaneously checked his fly. Then he steeled himself with the reminder that the elixir was made very far away, in Germany, and that it was only a couple of years old. There was no danger that the audience knew it even existed, let alone had any idea what its effects might be.
he reminded himself,
they will only decide that something is amiss if you fail to deliver the entertainment.
Whether or not anybody was aware of a new chemical substance named
everybody knew when they were bored.