Flight of the Purba: Mystery Short Story

Nov 5, 2016 | 2016 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by Barry Wiley

The well-dressed capacity audience was wedged into every chair in the main lecture room of the Royal Geographical Society to learn more of the enigmatic land of Tibet: “The Land of the Snows” and “The Land of the Hooded Lamas.” The lecture was the first appearance at the RGS by the recently acclaimed young explorer, Hamil Stewart, who was a dark-haired, clean-shaven man of medium build with a resonant tenor. Stewart’s voice easily carried throughout the richly paneled room with its gilded portraits of renowned early English explorers in suitably heroic poses arranged along the walls. tibet

But, along with a warm London outside, after almost an hour, the lecture room was becoming uncomfortably warm and stuffy, accompanied by the strengthening fragrance of upper class sweat.

Admittedly, it had not been warm and stuffy for my own lecture at the RGS last month on my travels across Canada and my encounter with the pet moose of the daughter of the Marquis de Lorne, the Governor-General. But then I, Stuart C. Cumberland, must humbly admit that I am simply the most celebrated thought reader of Queen Victoria’s Empire, not an illustrious explorer recently back from “the glorious heights of the fabled Himalayas,” to quote from advertisements for Hamil Stewart’s book, Inside Secret Tibet. Stewart promised new revelations of the fabled powers of the hooded lamas so popular in current romantic novels. I had to smile, with modest irony. I was in the process of writing such a book myself, following the encouraging success of my first novel, an occult romance, The Rabbi’s Spell. The working title of my current work is The Astral Body, however, my lamas are not hooded. One must always strive for originality in one’s writings.moose

At the moment, Stewart was captivating his audience with his illustrative portrayals of mystical lamas, monks, hermits, and monasteries with clever asides that enlivened the immediate audience reactions, principally from the many ladies present. Hamil Stewart, after all, had been featured the day before with a large portrait on the front page of the Pall Mall Gazette, whose energetic editor, W.T. Stead, was seated in the front row. Stead, by the by, has already been very generous in his Gazette in the past few weeks regarding my own travels and wonders.

However, another, older Tibetan explorer, heavily bearded Michael Cardwell, sitting two rows in front of me, was clearly unsettled and not at all captivated. Cardwell was the author of four Tibetan books and several articles that recounted his own explorations of that strange land. His books had sold well over the past five years or so, but were now largely forgotten. He would seem a formidable expert on all aspects of Tibet.

I make my living interpreting the body positions and movements of my subjects to help my determination of their inner thoughts, but I didn’t need to read any minds to know that Cardwell was becoming seriously agitated. The lady to his left was also clearly trying, though unsuccessfully, to calm him down.

“Upon death, the body of the Tibetan is chopped to pieces, with those pieces thrown in a circle around them for the vultures and animals to consume, except for ravens, which are driven off. This is to prevent evil spirits from reanimating the body. This,” Stewart paused, “this is a Tibetan funeral.”

Hamil Stewart pressed a button, the photograph of the mountainside Kum Bum Monastery changed to a grisly rendering of two men with wide blades hacking at the prostrate body of a man. Anguished cries erupted from women all over the room.

Michael Cardwell was on his feet shouting over the outcries, jabbing his extended forefinger again and again at the photograph. “This is fraud! Fraud, by God! Fraud!” As the audience suddenly quieted and shifted toward Cardwell’s short heavy body liveried in tight black wool, Hamil Stewart quickly pressed the button, the funeral changed into a photograph of another monastery. tibet

Henry Bruce, the first Baron Aberdare, President of the RGS, was immediately on his feet in the first row looking back at Cardwell, the Baron’s broad face the image of, I felt, aristocratic shock. His disapproval suitably registered, Baron Aberdare turned and resumed his seat.

Stewart waited for Cardwell to pause to take a breath, then said calmly, “My apologies for disturbing anyone with my photo. Let me move on to the remarkable powers of the Ngagspa, the oftentimes feared magicians of northern Tibet, known, well known for their terrifying death spells.”

The audience shifted nervously. Stewart was clearly pushing against the edge of the audience’s tolerance for exotic experiences. The heat was telling, even amid the mysteries of Tibet.

Cardwell was still standing, fuming but silent. The woman to his side was tugging at his arm, trying to pull him back down into his seat. Shrugging, he resumed his seat, still, however, clearly disturbed.

Stewart waited a moment, then said, “Often in romantic novels, a Tibetan magician or hooded sorcerer, is empowered to direct the flight of a blessed dagger, a purba,” the photo changed to a tinted photo of an elaborately worked dagger with a large golden hilt encircled by odd figures. “to animate the purba with only the power of his mind. A power that the magician can exercise from a great distance, even hundreds of yards.” purba

The photo changed to a seated man dressed in a dark embroidered brocade robe with an elaborate apron-like embellishment. A very striking, even menacing image. “That apron, my lords, ladies, and gentlemen, is made of carved human bones.” A ripple of uneasy agitation swept across the audience.

Again, Michael Cardwell slowly stood. In a calmer voice, he declared, “Sir, I delivered three crates of my Tibetan artifacts to the British Museum this morning, which includes one of those aprons. What artifacts have you given to the people of the Queen’s Realm, Mr. Stewart? That is assuming, sir, that you have ever been in Tibet.” A sharp gasp shot across the audience. “Your recent and only book on Tibet reveals nothing new on the country that I have not already described in detail in my books.” He sat down, breathing hard, his face, what could be seen of it behind and around his heavy beard was bright red, polished with sweat. The look on the face of the woman next to him had transformed into an almost terrified aspect. Cardwell began to cough. He nodded to her, and, holding a handkerchief to his mouth, stood. They edged their way down the aisle and left the room.

Stewart waited for a moment, then, “The magician’s spell, evidence of which I witnessed, is frightening.” The audience had settled back into their chairs, a quiet murmur subsiding. “The issue of death, strange death is a daily concern of the people of Tibet.”

Stewart changed photos and continued.

The death spell, of which I had learned in my own travels into the north of India, was not what is described in the romantic novels. The magician does not animate a sacred dagger, a purba, with his mind and then direct it against his victim. The spell requires a dagger blessed by the magician to be placed somewhere near the intended victim. The magician, who could be as much as a mile away, while muttering a suitable mantra, focuses his mind to seize control of the mind of his target, to force his prey to take the purba—to commit suicide.

I witnessed the suicide of a healthy Englishman, who picked up an elaborately carved dagger lying on a small table near him, only to suddenly plunge the blade into his own heart. He was someone whose esteemed name I will not mention, for whose soiree that evening I was to be the principal entertainment. That death spell cost me almost £200.

Stewart’s lecture over, the doors open, the heat and stuffiness moderating, I waited for the crowd around the speaker to dissipate before approaching.

“Mr. Stewart, how often did you personally experience the death spell in your travels? You gave only one example.”

Looking up from repacking his photographic slides, Hamil Stewart smiled. “I explain that in some detail in my book, sir?”

“I am Stuart Cumberland, Mr. Stewart.”

“Ah, the thought reader,” he smiled widely. “Perhaps then you can explore my mind and gain your answer without buying my book. Fortunately, not many in the public share your gift.” His gibe was gently delivered.

His was a familiar challenge: ah, you read minds, so read mine right now. “I do not do involuntary thought reading. I require first the cooperation of the subject.”

“A very neat side-step, sir.” He turned back to his repacking. “But then, I am accustomed to genuine wonders, Mr. Cumberland.”

I would not accept his curt dismissal. “Though I did not try to sense your thoughts during your lecture, Mr. Stewart, it was apparent to me that a flash of fear crossed your mind when you were challenged by Mr. Cardwell. Not so?”

He stopped, paused, then stood up, his shoulders thrown back. “Why should I fear that old fraud? He rails against me as a fake.” His laugh was short and sharp. “Only an old fool who could not last a fortnight in Tibet.”

A few others were approaching Stewart, thus I turned and left planning to return to my Club, The Constitutional, at 28 Northumberland Avenue, to relax with a glass of the Club’s excellent cognac in the reading room as I perused my initial draft of The Astral Mind. But instead, I turned away to travel an obscure street to speak with a trusted source.wine

I do not appear on any music hall stage, nor for that matter, on almost any stage. I perform my thought reading only before audiences of the exclusive upper classes, including the aristocracy and occasionally royalty, British and European and the exotic East. At such fashionable soirees, there are often celebrated men, and not a few women, in Victoria’s enlightened age, who may present certain challenges to the enquiring thought reader. Thus I have, over my five years of thought reading, developed a small group of informed individuals that I turn to for necessary background information. One was Algernon Caine, a gangly man of indeterminate age, whose mind and library were open confidentially to those who made it worth his while. However, in my case, I had done him a favor a year or two ago which he has never forgotten.

“Who is Hamil Stewart?” I asked over a cup of modest tea. Caine’s parlor was sparsely furnished but with several astonishing drawings of the female form on the walls.tea

“An explorer of mysterious Tibet, is he not?” responded Caine with a one-sided smile that twisted his face into a smirk. “That is what his publisher would have you believe, is it not?”

“I’ve not read his book. One book on Tibet seemed sufficient.”


I nodded. “But that was two or three years ago. I recently reexamined it to provide background to the occult novel I am currently working on, The Death Spell of the Magicians. What is your understanding of it?”

Caine shrugged. “If true, then the magician causes someone to commit suicide with a suitably blessed dagger of some sort. But, I don’t accept the reality of death spells, however, they are supposed to be applied.”

“Do any of your books have a photograph or drawing of a Ngagspa, the magician of Northern Tibet who claims the power of a death spell?”

In answer, Caine replaced his cup and walked away into another room. I waited, refilling my cup twice, at which point he reappeared carrying two manuscripts.

“Here is your magician, described by two earlier explorers whose travels in those mythic mountains were genuine. Neither spent more than two years in Tibet, both were captured by Tibetan authorities and physically expelled from the country with promises of immediate death if they returned.”

He dropped the manuscripts in front of me, and resumed his chair. He rose again with the teapot. “Time for a refill.”books

I turned the pages rapidly looking for any images. There was in the first manuscript a sketch suggestive of the photo Stewart used for his Tibetan funeral. But then in the second, the word Ngagspa caught my eye. Yes, as I had been told in Northern India, and had seen, the death spell was a compelled suicide with a convenient dagger. Then, in a section attached to the second manuscript were a group of seven staged photographs, the camera lens being too slow and awkward to catch any movement of the subjects. The manuscripts had been published for a private group in a limited edition ten years ago in 1875. Thus, except for certain explorers who actually knew Tibet, the manuscripts were unknown to the public. Three of the photos had been used by Hamil Stewart this afternoon, and presumably were in his book, a copy of which I planned to buy.

I gathered my notes, thanked Algernon Caine, and started for my Club. I loosely planned to read Stewart’s book at some point, and compare it with the material from the manuscripts. Stewart claimed only to have been in Tibet for about fourteen months, give or take, but had declared he planned a return for a longer period sometime in the near future.

My interest in Tibet waned rapidly as I had to prepare for soirees in two country manors, and then a trip north to Edinburgh for almost a full week of thought reading. For the higher classes I worked without fee, simply one of the honored guests, but for other venues, I earned very handsome piles of gold. That was my plan, until three days following the Stewart lecture, as I sliced my bangers, then sipped my morning coffee in the breakfast room of the Club when Nack suddenly appeared at the door. After showing his Scotland Yard credentials to the room manager, he was directed toward my customary table by a back window. We were about the same size, though Nack had added a few more pounds over past months than I. An astute thought reader must always guard his figure. And, over the years, Nack had added a heavy dark mustache.coffee

Nack, Henry Thick to others, was a close friend from my childhood in East Oxford when I was just Charley Garner, the son of Robert Garner, a butcher at Webley’s Butcher Shop on St. Giles Street. Nack and I had shared all the usual adventures of hellion little boys, and hellion bigger boys. I transformed my butcher persona into Stuart Charles Francis Cumberland, an upper class toff able to enter the elite salons of the very upper class to work his wonders. As Garner, the doors would have been closed and locked to me, regardless of any wonders I could perform. Once a butcher, always a butcher was the rule of Victoria’s vast realm. So I had to become Cumberland to gain access to the flow of gold that thought reading seemed to promise.

Nack had left East Oxford, rising from being a crusher, a bobbie, to become a jack, a respected detective at Scotland Yard. We still met regularly at the Bloody Two Squires pub with other chaps from East Oxford days (when I had to be very aware in order to keep my ‘h’s in place). But for Nack to interrupt my breakfast, something had to be wrong, wrong in an odd way.

I ordered a second cup of coffee and scones for him, but before it arrived, Nack leaned across the table and said, “Charley, what do you know of Tibetan death spells?”

My coffee stopped halfway to my lips. I frowned.

Nack explained that Michael Cardwell had been found that morning in his locked library with an odd dagger deep in his chest. All the windows were locked, and the only door locked from the inside. A note, apparently from Hamil Stewart, was in his hand. Nack pushed the note across the table to me, then leaned back for the waiter to deliver his coffee and scones.

You challenged me at the RGS. So, you will feel my death spell.
You faked it, I learned it.

The signature was printed, not signed. Everything was in green ink. The question that first came to mind was: “Is killing by death spell illegal in England?”

Nack frowned at me over the lip of his cup for a moment, then replaced it on its saucer, and leaned toward me. “Bloody hell, Charley, I am not in any mood for a joke!” Others sitting nearby looked at us, then quickly looked away.coffee

“No joke, Nack. I saw it done…once. At least it convinced me, when I was traveling in Northern India before the Viceroy threw me out of the country. Maybe I was just outfoxed by someone more clever, but it unnerved me for a time.”

Nack nodded, finished his coffee, jerked his head toward the door.

We rose to go.

The Cardwell library was a gigantic mess. My kind of library. “My husband would pile whatever was relevant to his current project in a semi-circle around his desk, leaving,” Maria Cardwell tried to smile, “a small crack for me to bring his tea.”

“What was his current project?” I asked.

She was struggling with her sorrow, but refused to give way. A strong, gallant woman. “I am no expert on Michael’s work,” she murmured, then her voice strengthened. “He was preparing a book to go with a planned exhibition at the British Museum of his Tibetan artifacts, photos, and manuscripts. He was to give two lectures during the exhibition. My husband was never excitable, but this exhibition was extremely important to him as it would confirm his stature as an explorer, but more, as a close and sympathetic observer. He loved the Tibetans. They were never just a means to make money on exaggerated books…as some.” tibet

She shook her head. “The Museum planned to have two of Michael’s books on sale during their Tibetan Exhibition.”

We moved to a grouping of three chairs in the corner of the library away from the desk where Michael Cardwell’s body had been found, slumped over his writings, a purba from his collection thrust deep into his heart.

Nack asked, “Was your husband the only Tibetan explorer to be featured during the exhibition?”

“No, Detective Thick, the experiences of two other explorers were to be also on display. Both of them, sadly, have recently died in recent weeks. They were good friends. And no, you were about to ask, Hamil Stewart is not included.”

“Mrs. Cardwell,” I asked as gently as I could, “your husband appeared to be quite ill when I saw him at the Stewart lecture. What was his doctor’s prognosis of his condition?”

She hesitated, then spoke quietly, “His doctor had severely warned him of any serious exertions, physical or emotional. He said that Michael’s condition was irreversible, and that he had perhaps three to five months of life remaining. The Museum exhibition was to be his final…final.” She began to sob. Nack immediately pressed his handkerchief into her hand.

Maria Cardwell nodded her thanks. Then blowing her nose, she shrugged, a small smile. “We have been married forty years, Mr. Cumberland. Both our sons are dead in the Queen’s endless wars somewhere. There was only Tibet remaining for us.” She glanced around the library, and nodded. “I’ll leave his final piles in place.”

We rose as Mrs. Cardwell was called away by a servant, then we resettled. Nack raised an eyebrow. “Charley, Stewart was lecturing before a small group at the time the body was discovered, and had been there for breakfast and then his lecture, so his entire morning is accounted for with ample witnesses.”

In my travels, I have experienced apparently wondrous killings, most often created by acts of nature, poor observation, or a lack of investigative imagination. Not all were murder, but all were tragic. Some were just dumb accidents. But the note. Stewart denied to Nack writing it. Said it wasn’t his handwriting, though he did occasionally use green ink. He had denied exercising a death spell…this time. He expressed no remorse for the death of Michael Cardwell. Several of the fifty-nine newspapers published in London, particularly The Star, were now asking, sardonically, if killing by death spell was illegal in England.

While Nack returned to his men who were outside questioning gardeners and neighbors, and Mrs. Cardwell had excused herself, I stepped carefully through the ‘crack’ in the semi-circle of piles to look more closely at the materials the explorer was working on when the dagger struck home. Beaten and scarred, the large oak desk was a maze of notes, marked up manuscripts, four opened books, two by Cardwell, I noted, with, pushed to one side, four plates of assorted biscuit crumbs and a cup of cold tea. The cup was cracked on one edge. Too many years of service to throw away? I smiled, but stopped, as I accidentally pushed a copy of the Times onto the floor. There were some documents buried under the notes and books.

I perused them a moment, then another. I flipped back to the first page to confirm. Another moment, and I knew the answer to the death spell.

If I explained it to Detective Henry Thick, he would be legally and morally obligated to take action. But to Nack, an old friend, maybe there could be something else. Mrs. Cardwell, who had returned to the library, went pale when she saw the documents I held.

“Your husband had insurance on his life, which according to this,” I tapped the documents, “dates back about six months. You had no insurance before then?”

She shook her head, her hands twisted together in fear. “No company would insure my husband because of his Tibetan travels. The Commercial Insurance Co. agreed to insure so long as it was understood the policy would not cover explorations. Michael signed an agreement to that effect.”

“It appears, Mrs. Cardwell, that there was another clause at the bottom.”

Coming to stand alongside us, Nack raised an eyebrow as he pursed his lips. He clearly now had a sense of the situation, and what might be forthcoming. “I need to be elsewhere, Charley,” he said curtly. “We can discuss this at a later time.” He left the library, closing the door behind him.

“That clause was also to confirm that the policy would not cover your husband’s existing medical condition,” I said. “And like all life policies of my experience, the policy also would not cover suicide.”

“Yes,” she murmured.

“It would be apparent, then, that your husband had become aware in the past few days that his condition was worsening much faster than his doctor had detected. As important as the exhibition was to him and to you, he could not risk leaving you penniless.” I tossed my hand to the large, messy library. “All this and the exhibition would not generate enough money. The sales of other more recent Tibetan books were stealing his royalty income. He had to find a way to protect you.”

Maria Cardwell clenched her fists, waiting.

“So,” I said, “he allowed a promised death spell to strike, not from Stewart, that note is an angry fake, but from a relentless Tibetan magician, whose name may be somewhere in those papers on the desk.” I cocked my head to one side. “Not so?”

She hesitated, then slumped forward, holding her head between her hands as she sobbed.

I waited.

Finally, Mrs. Cardwell looked up. “Yes, Mr. Cumberland, you understand it all. His purba was at hand. He let it fly.”

wineNack sipped the Club’s cognac. He had nodded as I explained the circumstances of Cardwell’s suicide with the purba. “I suspected something such,” he said. “But it is still a fraud on the insurance company, Charley. A fraud.” He emptied his crystal glass and held it toward me for refilling. “But the knowledge gained from Michael Cardwell’s work and the risks he took over the years to gain it…for all our benefit.” He nodded again, his glass hovering, “But Charley, only one death spell between us. The purba never flies again.”

We winked the winks we had used since our boyhood to mark a shared secret.

There was a rich, confirming tone as our glasses touched.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section.

Barry H. Wiley is a Derringer-nominated writer of mystery short stories, and the Christopher Literary Award winner for the non-fiction work, The Thought Reader Craze. He has written four novels and three non-fiction works. He has written six mystery/occult short stories with Stuart C. Cumberland, the British thought reader, the first five now collected in Tales of a Thought Reader. He has also published a series of mystery stories with his mentalist-detective, John Randall Brown. Barry has lectured on the history of thought reading and Spiritualism at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, the Magic Circle in London, and at other venues. You can learn more about Barry at his website www.barrywiley.com.


  1. Terrific story, thank you.

  2. Thanks for sharing such an unusual & fascinating story with us. I haven’t read anything like this for many years & really enjoyed it. The background & the suspense were especially well done.


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