Prologue—Hot Springs, Virginia, 1901
James stared down at the back of his hands, palms flat on the desk in front of him. This was the moment of truth. Or more appropriately, the moment of lies. He smiled briefly to himself at the thought. Henry Stanley would be here any moment. He'd seen the car slowly wending its way down the hill in the darkness, headlights short stabs of light. It had disappeared behind the magnolia trees, but he knew it would arrive at the service entrance shortly. His personal valet would show his guest directly here, to this office. He pressed down into his palms, pushing himself up, raising himself to his full height. How does one address a member of the House of Commons? Was it Mister or Honorable or something else entirely? He really didn't care but needed to appear appropriately fawning. This, he knew.
Mr. Morgan had asked him to arrange a secret meeting between the two. James had felt hopeful and even proud that the great J.P. Morgan would entrust such a task to him. That was before he had discovered he was being replaced. He'd learned this by eavesdropping, of course, as was his habit. The nephew of a friend, it seemed would become the next manager of The Homestead. The hotel was one of Mr. Morgan's pet projects, but he was far more involved than an investor typically became, riding in frequently on his rail line from New York City to scrutinize things. James had thought he'd been pleased with what he had seen. James' rise from anonymous Danish immigrant to manager of one of the most famous hotels in America had been unlikely, but he had thought that Mr. Morgan was an exceptional man, actually promoting based on merit and talent, rather than nepotism.
But James had been wrong, so it seemed. Now, he planned to repay Mr. Morgan for his "kindness." Charles Yerkes had been a guest at the hotel two weeks ago, under an assumed name, of course, and Mr. Morgan had no idea. Just after dinner one night in the lounge, he had approached James with an offer he couldn't refuse. Over brandy and cigars, he offered an obscene amount of money to prevent this very meeting between Mr. Morgan and Mr. (Hon?) Stanley. Mr. Morgan wanted to connect the London tube routes. As if he could possibly earn more money than he already had, he thought he could make a true old world fortune. He wanted to buy up the remaining land in London, but he needed Parliament's approval. This meeting with Henry Stanley would pave the way. Henry Stanley had lived in America, been a reporter of all things. He had met Wild Bill Hickock and spent time in the Dakota Territory. He was willing to help Morgan in his venture, for a price. Mr. Yerkes owned the rest of the tube system and desperately wanted to prevent Mr. Morgan's involvement. Mr. Yerkes didn't quite have Mr. Morgan's fortune, but he would use any means to assemble it. He was certainly not above blackmail or bribes. He had ruled Chicago in this way and graduated to international intrigues. Mr. Morgan felt disdain for Chicago, that it was a backwater, almost the frontier, but James felt a kinship with Mr. Yerkes. He felt that he was just like Mr. Yerkes, just on a smaller scale, albeit one that could enlarge. James smiled to himself. Determination. That's what I have, he thought.
By now, he had crossed the room and was standing in front of the full length mirror mounted on a wardrobe against the back wall. He smiled at himself again, still in evening wear. Handsome devil, he smiled. He wore a dark tail coat and trousers with a white waistcoat. He stretched out his arms and brushed off his sleeves. His cuff links glittered in the low lighting, not diamond but a good imitation. He reached up to straighten his matching white bow tie. He smirked at his reflection smoothing back his oiled hair and mustache. His skin was somewhat pale, but he had been complemented on his fair hair and blue eyes by women who knew about such things. He always dressed formally for dinner and hadn't changed before this meeting. He knew he was handsome and felt somehow more powerful in this attire. Mr. Morgan thought Henry Stanley was coming tomorrow. James had wired him about the change in plans. He would arrive on the morning train from New York. Tonight he would entertain Henry Stanley with false information. Tomorrow, he would continue his deception with Mr. Morgan. Mr. Yerkes had promised him a managerial position at Claridge's in London, quite a step up from this Virginia outpost. Parliament would block Mr. Morgan's deal before he was any the wiser.
Behind his reflection he saw the oil lantern flicker and gutter. He glanced away from the mirror toward it, but any wind seemed to have settled. He had the windows closed against the late evening chill so there really shouldn't be a draft. When he turned back to his reflection, he sharply exclaimed at a vision of sightless eyes staring back at him from a skull. He chuckled feebly when he realized it was just the shadows cast by the dancing flames of the lantern. It had gotten quite dark in the room. It was lit only by the lantern, so as not to draw attention to his office window from the grounds. They were, of course, one of the first hotels in America to have electric light. Mr. Edison was a great friend of Mr. Morgan, but, he had elected to keep the lights out. He chastised himself for his overactive imagination.
There was a sharp knock at the door. He quickly traversed the room and discreetly opened it. A stout man with red cheeks, but gray hair and eyes stood with a top hat and cane beside the valet. The valet swiftly nodded, dropped his eyes and backed away without a word. James was well known for his unpredictable moods.
"Mr. Stanley…I hope that is the appropriate greeting for you, in fact…please step into my office," James bowed and backed up two paces. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am James Nomaden, manager of the hotel. I am afraid that Mr. Morgan will be unable to join us this evening." James could see a look of dismay flit across his guest's features, but he replaced it with a calm façade quickly.
"Well, I have come a long way. I am surprised that he is not here to greet me for such an important matter," Stanley countered, a false smile on his face.
"Shall we sit?" James asked politely. He gestured toward two large mahogany straight-backed chairs with rolled arm rests. They were covered in a dark green chenille fabric with elaborate wood working. They had been extremely costly, but Mr. Morgan had approved the expense when he thought they were destined for the smoking lounge.
"Mr. Nomaden, is it?" Stanley asked, crossing his legs. He seemed uncomfortable for someone who had spent so much time mingling among the masses. He reached into his own waistcoat and produced a cigar. He waved it in front of him in questioning manner. James nodded at him, acquiescing. "I don't wish to be rude, but I don't feel comfortable discussing these matters with you or in this setting. I feel out of place here, for some reason. Please tell Morgan that I will do what I can to help him. I don't need incentive. Without going into detail, I think it is best for London. Plus, I like to help Americans…I admire the pioneering spirit, perhaps." He paused to light his cigar and inhaled deeply. Smoke ringed around his face, clouding it from view. "I've travelled in Abyssinia, you know," he said slowly, waving his hand across the space between them. The smoke cleared.
"I was not aware of that," James said, hardly interested. He was trying to dissuade this man from helping Morgan or at least delaying it. What could he say?
"It's hard to continue to take stock in humankind and his ways after some of the things I have seen, I can assure you. I've felt strange since I arrived. Another reason, I'm so sorry not to see Morgan here. I don't know why I'm telling you this, but I feel uneasy. I feel things I haven't felt in many years." Stanley continued, his eyes taking on a faraway look.
I'm blowing this, thought James. How do I bring the subject back around?
"Have you heard of vodun or the botano?" asked Stanley suddenly, his eyes a million miles away.
Is he drunk? James thought wildly.
"No?" Stanley looked at him, his eyes clearing as if suddenly remembering where he was. "I've seen spirits possess the body of a living man," he said quietly, looking down at his hands breaking eye contact.
What is going on? James continued to smile politely.
Stanley looked back up, his eyes seeming to penetrate James' soul this time. "Not like a possession, you know, what you read in Matthew?" He swallowed and then took a long drag on his cigar. He exhaled and stared toward the window on the opposite wall at the rising moon. "When the mind is weak, ill, or injured, a spirit can overcome it. Push it right out of the body. The circumstances have to be right, but the spirit can live again. I saw it happen. Damnedest thing. Cured me of my wanderlust, sure did. I went straight back to England from Africa. Never published any of those stories I collected. Married the first girl I saw and settled down. Wild Bill Hickock, be damned! Now I'm in Parliament, safe and sound." He let out a nervous laugh. "I don't know what it is about this place, but it raises those feelings again. I've felt odd since I left the train station. I can smell the incense. Feel the humidity on my skin. Almost hear the chanting." Suddenly, Stanley sat bolt upright and opened his eyes wide. "Mr. Nomaden, I need to leave now. Please send for my car and driver. I won't spend the night. Tell Morgan I'll help him, however I can." He stood, stubbed out his cigar in the cut glass ashtray and shifted toward the door, in hurry.
James jumped to his feet, desperate to stop the current stream of events. His hand flew out, grabbing Stanley's wrist to halt him. "Wait, Mr. Stanley, wouldn't you like to share in my fine single malt collection?" he asked with what he thought of as an ingratiating smile. He'd practiced it in the mirror and thought it effective.
Stanley's eyes shifted to the spot where James' skin contacted his. Then, he stared back at James, horror and fear growing in his expression. James was bewildered by what he saw there. Stanley sprang back as if electrocuted, eyes wide with shock. "It's YOU!" he exclaimed. "I've got to get out of here, they warned me!" he almost shouted these confusing words. He stumbled in his haste, knocking against James. James reached out to steady him, hold him still, but Stanley was faster. He wrenched free of his grasp and moved toward the door.
"I'll see myself out, Mr. Nomaden, and I won't speak of this to Mr. Morgan." He was slowly backing toward the door, palms held up in surrender. Fury overtook James. This was his big chance, and he was letting it slip away. He lunged toward Stanley, who feinted to the side just in time. James contacted the desk, and the lantern tumbled to the floor shattering amid flames. Stanley stood stock still, stunned for a moment, eyes locked with James. "I'm sorry," he mouthed silently and sprinted for the door. The flames had reached his Persian rug and shot toward the ceiling. Smoke curled in tendrils up the curtains. They surrounded him. He tried to run for the door or reach the window, but the smoke had him choking. He sank to his knees, visions of semi-clad natives, dark shining skin, masks with bared, gleaming teeth clouding his sensorium. He could hear the chanting, feel the whoosh of air as their limbs jerked in dance. Then, things went dark.