When I wrote Murder at the Rummage Sale, my agent warned: “You have to have a sequel in mind!” I was supposed to write a second domestic cozy, same setting, same characters, different victim. But what came to mind was a memory. When I was a troubled teen visiting England, my uncle gave me a map and let me go sightseeing in London on my own. It was early winter 1968, the war in Vietnam was raging. I did not want to be an American; so I faked an accent, wore an eccentric hat, and called myself Eliza Doolittle. When a man picked me up, I did not know how to break out of character. I ended up drunk in his flat. I just managed to fight off rape. The man must have figured out that I didn’t add up and could land him in trouble. He took me back to my uncle’s office. The kernel for All the Perils of this Night is: what if he hadn’t? What if, like so many others, I had been trafficked? I couldn’t shake that “what if.” So I wrote the standalone sequel, no domestic cozy but what I would call a numinous thriller.
In July, in honor of Mary Magdalen’s feast day, I usually post about Maeve, my Celtic Mary Magdalen. This year Maeve urged me to select an excerpt from the new novel. In the scene below Anne, teenaged Katherine’s mother, is searching for her vanished daughter in London’s red light district. A prostitute agrees to speak with her if Anne will pay for her time.
Somewhat to Anne’s surprise, the spot was the London version of an all-night Greek diner, brightly lit. She realized that she had assumed all prostitutes were alcoholics or drug addicts. The frizzy-haired woman ordered a cup of tea, which she doctored with milk and lots of sugar, and a lemon cake. Anne ordered Nescafe and stared into its tasteless depths, not knowing how to begin.
“Right then, tell me all about it, luv. I ‘aven’t got all night. Name’s Margaret by the way, Margarita on the street.”
Despite the impatient words, the woman’s tone was kind.
“My name is Anne,” she said.
She looked up at the woman’s face. There was something about the mildness of her eyes, the slope of her cheek that reminded Anne of her best friend Rosalie. She fought back a fresh spate of tears and began, telling far more than she had intended to.
“She’s a lucky girl, that’s all I can say,” said Margaret, stubbing out another of Anne’s cigarettes.
“Lucky?” Anne repeated, looking at her blankly.
“If I’d ‘ad a mum like you come lookin’ for me instead of throwin’ me out when I was fifteen and me stepdad come after me, I wouldn’t be where I am now. And if I’da been a mum like you, maybe them social workers wouldn’t have taken me daughter into care.”
“Oh,” said Anne. “I’m so sorry.”
“ ‘sall right,” said Margaret, looking away. “Better off, maybe. Wouldn’t want ‘er to end up…” Margaret trailed off, no doubt remembering where Anne’s daughter might be.
She might not have thrown Katherine out of the house, Anne considered, but she had sent her child across an ocean to stay with people she didn’t even like. Still, there was no point in wasting time in mutual self-recrimination with a stranger.
“Is there anything you can tell me, Margaret? Anywhere I might look?”
Margaret was quiet for a moment.
“You say the police ‘as searched all the corners like mine? All the known ‘ouses?”
“They say they have,” said Anne. “But there must be so many….”
“Yeah, the old needle in the ‘aystack, I’m afraid. Look, I don’t know if I should even mention a rumor I’ve ‘eard on the street. If it was me, I’m not sure I’d want to know.”
She looked at Anne.
“Tell me,” Anne pleaded. “Anything is better than not knowing. Anything.”
“I wouldn’t bet on that, but all right then. You be the judge.”
And Margaret told her a tale of a legendary place. No one knew exactly where it was. On the outskirts of East London, disguised on the outside as a warehouse or an abandoned factory.
“Top secret, it is,” said Margaret. “A secret society, like, toffs only. MPs, landed gentry, foreign royalty, that sort. You’d think we’d all be fightin’ to work there. But the rumor is they don’t want no professionals wot knows the score. They don’t pay their girls tuppence. Keep ‘em as prisoners, slaves, like. They take raw girls off the street, on the lam, no ‘omes, no people, which is ‘ow a lot of us get caught in the Life. But wot we ‘ear is none of these girls is ever seen again. There’s some other sort of trade going on there…beyond rough. No one knows for sure. I don’t like to even fink of it.”
Anne felt cold all over. What was she saying? What was the woman saying?
“Look, time’s up, luv. I got to get back to work.”
“No, wait,” Anne reached for her arm, stalling her. She needed to know more. She needed to know the worst. “I haven’t even paid you yet.”
Margaret shook her off.
“You don’t owe me noffink, Anne. And don’t worry about wot I said. If the rumors is even true, they wouldn’t want a girl with a mum like you, out searchin’ every nook and cranny.”
Unless that girl was pretending to be someone she wasn’t, someone out of a Broadway musical wearing her mother’s old skirt and a hat from the rummage sale.
“Margaret!” Anne called after her. “Just tell me. Just tell me which way to start.”
The woman paused in the doorway, putting up her flimsy parasol.
“East, luv, though you ‘aven’t got a chance of finding it. Just keep ‘eadin’ east.”
Anne laid down much too large a note and did not wait for change.
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. Her novels The Wild Mother and The Return of the Goddess have both been released in 25th anniversary editions. She is also the author of Murder at the Rummage Sale. The sequel, All the Perils of this Night, will be published in August, 2020. An interfaith minister, Cunningham is in private practice as a counselor. She is also a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute.