Chapter One

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July 1873

Summertime in London had both a good side and a bad. On the one hand, the warm season brought strawberries and ices, and picnics in the park. But on the other, it brought the foul and humid stench of rotten sewage from The River Thames. Freddie Westman, a reporter for London's only paranormal magazine, held his breath and darted from his carriage. Amidst the soot-stained printing district of Clerkenwell, his workplace stood within sight - the office of Penderry's Bizarre magazine. He strode over litter and horse dung and entered the dingy building. Behind, his dog followed, panting in the heat.

"Come along, come along," he muttered.

At length, Jack trotted inside, and Westman closed the door on the stink.

"Thank God,"

Finally, he could breathe again.

With a courteous nod at the receptionist, he made his way to the reporting room. His friend and colleague Jim Penderry was already there, feet propped on his cluttered desk while he read a sheet of paper. Someone had placed a potted palm in the corner of the room – an attempt to brighten the shabby office.

"Morning, Freddie," said Jim. "Is something wrong?"

Westman hung his hat on the coat stand beside the door. "Why do you ask?"

"You're doing that thing with your eyebrows."

He was quite aware of his unattractive habit, but scowling was beyond his control. Besides, it made him feel better.

"Didn't you notice the stink outside? The River is particularly foul today."

Jim smiled and shook his head of fair curls. "What stink? All I smell is the start of the great British summer. The sun is shining, the flowers are in bloom. Why, you can almost taste the lemonade and rhubarb upside-down cake."

"Never mind the cake, your nose is upside-down."

"It's a perfect day for a trip to Kew Gardens."

"The royal botanic gardens?" Westman tugged his waistcoat straight and took a seat at his desk. A stack of case notes awaited him.

"Yes." Jim lifted his feet off the desk and picked up a newspaper. "Have a look at this."

He'd circled an article in pencil, and Westman took the tabloid to read.

"Carnivorous plant comes to London."

"Indeed," said Jim, leaning on the edge of Westman's desk. "You may have heard of the Venus fly trap, but this is something else entirely. By all accounts, the plant is as big as an elephant. It's native to Africa, but when Princess Beatrice heard about it, she decided she wanted one. So, the thing was dug up and brought all the way to Kew Gardens for exhibition. Apparently it's quite a spectacle."

Westman lowered the paper. "Wait a moment. It says here the plant is carnivorous."

"Correct."

"And you just said it's the size of an elephant. Am I the only one who finds that rather disturbing? What on earth do they feed it?"

"That's the question, isn't it?" He retrieved a newspaper clipping from a pile. "This is an article from last month."

It was company practice to keep records of any strange mysteries they happened upon. Sometimes events married up to paint a larger picture, and Westman realized this was going to be one of those glorious occasions.

Jim placed the clipping in front of him. "The whole process of digging up the plant and transporting it to England took eight weeks. Now, it's not uncommon for lives to be lost at sea - accidental falls overboard, that sort of thing - but during the voyage three passengers and the captain's pet dog mysteriously disappeared. And the only clue recovered was a pocket watch in the hold where they stored the plant."

"That doesn't sound reassuring."

Excitement twinkled in Jim's eyes. "You're not the only one with concerns. For decades, the idea of a man-eating plant has been nothing but a myth. But this could be the proof botanists have been searching for. I believe the plant ate those people. And the dog."

Westman glanced down at Jack. The black and white Collie lay on the cool floor at his feet. He was suddenly apprehensive about taking him along for this case. "So when do we go?"

"Not me, old boy." Jim slid back to his desk and lounged in the chair. "My uncle wants you to handle this one. I have my hands full."

Jim's uncle, Professor Broom Penderry, managed the magazine. And though Westman preferred to investigate black magic and negative entities such as demons and spirits, he had to take what he was given. Reporting was his living, after all.

"Naturally," said Westman, watching Jim spin a ruler between his fingers. "I can see how busy you are."

Jim put down the wooden rule and smirked. "Don't worry, Fred. You won't have to do all the field work alone."

"On the contrary, I prefer to work alone."

"Not this time."

"Is that so?"

"My great grandparents were famous botanists."

"Yes, I heard."

"It runs in the family."

"What are you getting at?"

"We have our very own expert on all things plant-like. Uncle Broom thinks you should take my sister along."

"Sophie?" Westman straightened in his seat.

Sophie, who always had her nose in a book – or in other people's business.

"You can imagine how keen she is to see the plant for herself," said Jim. "I've never known anyone to get so excited about a shrub. And before you say it, if this thing turns out to be dangerous, Sophie is a capable young woman."

"I do not doubt it." Westman fidgeted with his shirt collar.

The room was too stuffy and hot. Infernal summer weather.

The truth of the matter was that he liked his friend's sister. Very much so. At first, when she'd placed herself in his path last year, he'd grumbled like an old coot about her meddling in his investigation. Until he realised he'd underestimated her strength. Now, he no longer complained. Even if he wanted to, her kind heart and pretty smile could always disarm him. He'd even considered courting her. But the opportunity to charm her rarely arose, and whenever it did he could never find the right words and ended up ruining everything.

Might as well accept it, you're hopeless at being charming, he thought, recalling the fiasco last Valentine's day.

Nevertheless, Kew Gardens was a popular place with young couples, and the thought of being there with Sophie, just the two of them, made him warm around the neck.

"Sophie is at The Ladies Natural History club today," Jim went on. "Along with Miss Penelope Trotter, a renowned explorer who's seen a great deal of Africa. Apparently, Miss Trotter has a thing or two to say about our carnivorous friend. They're expecting you."

Jim went to the coat stand and tossed Westman his hat.

He caught it to his chest. "Well, I suppose I'll be on my way, then."    

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A note about The River Thames. It no longer stinks like that, so don't be put off visiting our wonderful London :)

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