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The Limehouse Text bal-3


  The Limehouse Text

  ( Barker and Llewelyn - 3 )

  Will Thomas

  The Limehouse Text

  Will Thomas

  East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.

  - Rudyard Kipling

  Prologue

  I was the lone occidental in a room full of Chinamen, and all of them were talking at once. On either side of me, they were arguing with one another, chanting in unison, or beating the wooden floor with their rope-soled shoes. There was a good deal of wagering going on, with both English pounds and Chinese taels changing hands quickly. Despite the heat of such activity, there was a chill in the room as the smoky breath from all of us condensed overhead in a fog amid the old gray timbers of the quayside warehouse. I pulled my coat closer about me and wished I were at home in my room with my feet on the fender in front of a good fire, where any sane person would be on a dreary February evening, while the chant continued to boom in my ears.

  “Shi Shi Ji! Shi Shi Ji! Shi Shi Ji!”

  As luck would have it, they were chanting one of the few Mandarin phrases I recognized: the name my employer, Cyrus Barker, was known by among the Chinese. Where he was at the moment I couldn’t say, but he would be coming along shortly, of that I was certain. A hundred or more Chinamen were massed impatiently around this sunken ring I’m sure Scotland Yard would be very interested to know about, and there was to be a fight soon. I seriously doubted whether anyone besides myself here had ever heard of the Marquis of Queensberry rules.

  There was movement in the ring, and I leaned forward with a sudden sick feeling in my stomach, but it was only a troupe of Chinese acrobats. A girl of fourteen balanced her twin sister upright, head to head, with but a fold of cloth between them, and a fellow flopped about the ring on his stomach like a seal, but their efforts were jeered at by the audience. I might have been entertained by their performance myself under other circumstances, but I had not come here to be entertained. Shortly, my employer would be coming into that ring to fight for his life or, rather, both our lives.

  I brushed aside Asians attempting to sell me treats of dried squid and unidentifiable meat on wooden skewers, trying to concentrate on the matter at hand. I looked about the room at the faces of the three men I knew. Old Quong, father of my employer’s late assistant, had his hands on the rail in front of the pit and was watching the acrobats anxiously. Jimmy Woo, an interpreter for the Asiatic Aid Society, was absently chewing on his knuckle through his glove, in danger of gnawing a hole in the silk. Ho, one of Barker’s closest friends, had his hands in the sleeves of his quilted jacket and a sour look upon his face. All of them looked down into the ring as solemnly as if they were watching Barker’s coffin pass by.

  The acrobats gave up their poor efforts to entertain the crowd and fled. Cyrus Barker stepped out of the shadow into the nimbus shed by torches set into the arena’s structure. He wore a pair of black, baggy trousers gathered at the waist and ankles in the Chinese manner, and his forearms were encased in leather gauntlets covered with metal studs. Despite the cold, he wore a sleeveless shirt with a mandarin collar, and from fifteen feet away I could see the burns, marks, and tattoos on his brawny arms, souvenirs of his initiations into many secret societies. I remarked to myself how, with his broad nose, black hair, and swarthy skin, he had successfully passed himself off as an Oriental for many years prior to returning to the West. In place of his usual black-lensed spectacles, his eyes were now hidden behind a pair of round, India-rubber goggles I had never seen before.

  At the sight of him, everyone began chanting his name even louder, and more wagers changed hands; but Barker ignored them and began warming up, loosening his joints and stretching. My tension eased a little. The Guv seemed confident, and why shouldn’t he? He was six feet two inches tall, after all, and weighed over fifteen stone, dwarfing most of us in the room. Given the short notice before the fight, what sort of fellow could they have found to face a man as formidable as he?

  As if in answer to my thoughts, another man stepped into the ring, and I felt my stomach fall away. If the crowd was excited before, it went into a frenzy now. The wagers redoubled now that the combatants could be compared.

  Ho shot me a cold glance after we had both surveyed the opponent, and his eyes were reduced to mere slits in his face. I knew what he was thinking. It was the same thing I had been thinking myself since we’d been brought here: this was all my fault, mine alone. Barker was down there about to begin the fight of his life because of my mistakes. If I hadn’t followed the girl, if I hadn’t fought the Chinese, if I hadn’t lost the dog, then perhaps…

  Well, perhaps I should start at the beginning.

  1

  "Found summat,” Inspector Nevil Bainbridge said, betraying his Yorkshire roots as he fished among the pockets of his tunic. It was a Wednesday morning, the fourth of February, 1885. I didn’t know the man from Adam and was assessing him primarily because it was one of my duties but also because I was curious. I’d only met one Scotland Yard inspector before, Terence Poole, who always wore civilian dress, whereas this fellow wore a long jacket with frog fasteners and a peaked cap. I had no way of knowing whether or not his uniform was standard issue, but the truncheon inserted into the inspector’s wide belt certainly was not. It was as thick as my arm, hung to his knee, and displayed scratches and dents I’d wager it didn’t get from being drummed along fence posts. “Here it is.”

  He handed over a small wafer of faded and water stained pasteboard to my employer, private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker, who regarded it solemnly. It appeared to be a simple pawn ticket. Since I’d entered Barker’s employ almost a year earlier in March 1884, I had never once heard the name of Inspector Bainbridge. How long had the Guv known this fellow?

  “Where did you find this?” Barker demanded in his deep rumble. His black brows slipped behind the round lenses of dark glass he always wore. He was frowning. Both men were, in fact. Whatever matter of business had brought them together was being taken very seriously.

  “It were in the sleeve, tucked under like, and slipped into a small rip,” the inspector answered. “I could see why we missed it. I was about to send the effects on to his family. I allus go over old cases after first o’ year, hoping to nail some down, and this cold spell has been keeping me in station more than reg’lar.”

  “How remarkable that it survived,” Barker said. “Did you attempt to exchange it?”

  “Course I did,” the inspector answered, stroking his long beard. “Pawnbroker wouldn’t let me see it, would he? Said I wasn’t the next o’ kin, and the law says he didn’t have to let me see whatever it was until I produced one. Bloody Dutchmen. They have no business opening respectable shops in London, not that it were ’zactly respectable, mind. It’s in Limehouse. A more draggle-tailed aspect you’d have to work bloody hard to find.”

  Barker stared intently at the card, as if willing it to give up its secrets. Finally, he put both hands on his desk blotter and pushed himself out of his chair.

  “This is a mystery,” he said, “and I cannot abide mysteries. Quong had no reason to pawn anything. I always saw that his needs were adequately met. Come, Thomas.”

  “Yes, sir,” I said, reaching to the stand by my desk where our hats and coats hung. Quong had been my employer’s first assistant. He’d been found dead a year before, floating in Limehouse Reach, shot with a single bullet between the eyes. Barker had been unsuccessful in finding his murderer and, being the Scotsman he was, had brooded over it often. This break in the case was important to him, I knew.

  “Jenkins, we shall be out for the rest of the day,” Barker said as we passed the desk in the outer office. Our clerk was buried behind an issue of The Il
lustrated London News, which was in danger of catching fire from his cigarette. He muttered a reply and returned to his reading. Jenkins didn’t exactly shine in the mornings, if indeed he ever shone at all.

  I was bundled into a cold hansom cab, squeezed between Barker’s brawny left shoulder and Bainbridge’s equally brawny right one. The two men were of a size-and a large one, at that. I felt like a kernel of wheat in a mill.

  A half hour’s cab ride later, we alighted in East India Dock Road in front of a building that would have been nondescript were it not for the three gold-painted balls over the door. The street, along with others nearby such as Orient and Canton, had been named after the first successes of the East India Company in Asia, but if I was expecting an Asian fantasy I was mistaken. Ming Street looked about as Oriental as Camden Town.

  A notice on the door informed us that the Hurtz Pawnshop had closed its doors permanently and that anyone with a ticket had better claim the property soon. Bainbridge agreed to remain outside while we went in and attempted to retrieve whatever had brought us out on our errand. The door was unlocked despite the notice. Moving between racks of musty clothing, oil lamps, and old violins, we found the counter vacant, but there was some evidence of movement in the back room. Someone was using a broom vigorously. Barker pounded twice on the floor with the metal tip of his walking stick.

  After a moment, a head popped through the baize curtain and a body eventually came with it. They belonged to a fastidious-looking Dutchman with a pair of sandy side-whiskers, like two chops glued to a face, and a handkerchief on his head, knotted at each corner. As he came forward, he plucked off the kerchief and used it to wipe the dust from his shoulders.

  “Gentlemen, we are closed,” he said, biting off each syllable as if it were a herring. “Unless, of course, you have come to retrieve something in pawn.”

  “We have, sir, if you still possess it,” Barker said, pulling the ticket from his pocket and presenting it to the proprietor. “Why are you closing shop, if I may ask? Has business fallen away?”

  “No. My brother has unfortunately passed on. This was his shop.”

  “We are sorry to hear that. Was it an illness of some duration?”

  “It was no illness. He fell down the stairs in the back and died. I came here from Rotterdam to settle his affairs.”

  The shopkeeper opened his ledger and compared the ticket number to the entry in the book. Only then did he stop and put up his hand.

  “Hold a minute, gentlemen, if you please. I recall this item. A fellow claiming to be a police official came here just this morning attempting to retrieve it. I shall tell you the same thing that I told him. If the claimant is dead, it must be picked up by his next of kin.”

  “I am his next of kin.”

  The Dutchman crossed his arms and stared at Barker skeptically. “I find that difficult to believe, since the name on the ticket is Chinese.”

  “If you will check your book, I’m certain you shall find that the name given is Quong and the address 127 Three Colt Street, Limehouse. He was my assistant. The building is mine.”

  Three Colt Street, I thought to myself. The name was new to me. Quong had lived in the room I presently occupied in Barker’s home in Newington, but Barker had just given a second address. Did he really own a building in the area, or was he spinning a yarn to get past the Dutchman?

  Mr. Hurtz checked his ledger and read the writing there. “And you are?”

  “Cyrus Barker, sir. Here is my card.”

  “Private enquiry agent,” he said, studying the card skeptically. “You understand, one must be cautious in this day and age. My brother was never cautious. If he had been, he would have known there were seventeen steps on that staircase, not sixteen. Very well. I suppose you detectives shall continue to pester me otherwise. I shall keep your card, and if someone else comes along claiming to be this Mr. Quong, I shall refer him to you. Do you have any objections?”

  “None whatever. On what date was the item taken in pawn?”

  “The first of the year, according to the ledger.”

  “He was found dead the next morning.”

  “Forgive me if I have been curt. My brother was always a trifle disorganized. He kept poor books and threw the items he took in into any convenient mouse hole. It has taken me weeks to rearrange everything systematically, and do you know what happened when I finished? The shop was broken into.”

  “How terrible!” Barker said.

  “Yes. I will never be so glad as when I board the ferry to Amsterdam and can say good-bye to this wretched business.”

  “Was much taken?” my employer continued.

  “A few trinkets and some gold pieces. Obviously, Jan did not do business in a large way, not in this district, certainly. But the thief overturned everything, you see. I had to rearrange the stock all over again.”

  “You say your brother fell down the stairs in this very building. Were they steep?”

  “Steep enough, sir, though Jan was uncommonly clumsy. He lived above the shop, you see, and was found dead at the foot of the stairs with his neck broken. Unfortunately, he lived alone and nobody reported that his shop remained closed for over a week. Poor Jan. Always unlucky in his affairs.”

  “When did he pass away?”

  “A month ago. I had to rearrange my affairs to come here.”

  “You have our sympathy, sir, for your loss,” Barker said, bowing his head in respect. “Is it possible the item my assistant had in pawn was taken in the burglary?”

  “No, sir. I am sure I still have it, if you will give me just a moment.”

  When the Dutchman disappeared behind a curtain, I tried to dispel the image of Hurtz lying dead in his house for a week by asking Barker a question. “Why do you suppose Mr. Quong was in a pawnshop, sir?”

  “Quong had a fascination for small, out-of-the- way shops selling old curiosities. He said they gave him a better understanding of Western culture. I’ve never known him to put an item in pawn, however.”

  Hurtz returned from the back room. “Here you are, sir,” he said, setting down a small parcel done up in brown paper. Without ceremony, Barker seized it and tore open the packet. Inside was a small, disreputable-looking book with a faded yellow-brown cover of raw silk. There was a label affixed to it with Chinese lettering aligned vertically, and instead of a hard spine, the binding strings hung down in knotted strands, like tassels.

  My employer gave it little more than a perfunctory glance, opening and perusing a page or two before sliding it inside the pocket of his jacket. “Yes, that’s it. All appears to be in order,” he said. “How much do I owe you?”

  “One and sixpence, sir. If I may ask it, what possessed your assistant to place such a small item in pawn? Jan could not have given him more than a shilling for it.”

  Barker tapped his pocket. “I scarce can say. Whim, perhaps. Thank you, sir. Thomas, pay the man.”

  I fished in my pocket until I came up with the required amount. Barker never carried silver, just the sharp-edged pennies he used as weapons, and he disliked discussing money. The Guv scrutinized the ledger a moment, then dipped the pen and signed on the line provided. Our business concluded, we quit the shop.

  “You got it?” Bainbridge asked from a doorway as we passed. He quickly fell into step with us.

  “Yes. It is a Chinese book. Are you familiar with Ho’s?”

  Bainbridge smiled, revealing a horsey set of teeth. “I’ve been picking up the dross Ho has been tossing out of his establishment for years.”

  “I’d like him to verify what I believe this to be, if you have no objections.”

  “None whatever, as long as I don’t have to eat any of the swill he serves. It’s eels, eyes of newt, and whatever was run over by the Leadenhall meat wagons the night before. They say there are no cats within a mile of the place.”

  I thought Barker might object to Bainbridge’s remarks. Ho’s was his base of operations in the East End, and he was on such good terms with the
owner that I always thought he might have some hand in the place’s affairs. His mind was on the case, however, and he would not be distracted by what might or might not be on Ho’s menu. He shot ahead like a dog let off its lead, and the inspector and I followed, dodging along alleys and streets until we eventually came to a narrow lane near the river. A more blighted corner of London you shall not find. We passed beneath bared arches overhead to a wall at the far end and through a ravaged door. Ho’s is reached through a long, unlit tunnel under the Thames. Barker took the twenty-one steps down two at a time, no small feat in pitch darkness. With Bainbridge there, however, I thought it more prudent to light one of the naphtha lamps provided, and we followed my employer at a more respectable pace.

  We climbed the second set of steps and entered Ho’s establishment. I admit to being a bit peckish. Despite the inspector’s assertions, Ho is a fine chef, though I don’t pretend to be an authority on Chinese cuisine. I was not a little disappointed when Barker skirted the tables and passed into the kitchen without a word.

  I’d always wondered what sort of alchemy went on in Ho’s kitchen. I imagined it to be like a cookery in some medieval castle, rough servants hacking limbs from freshly killed animals, bubbling cauldrons of bloodred soups full of boar or fish heads, and a complete lack of sanitation. What I found instead was a crew of talkative cooks, much like the men who tended Barker’s back garden twice a week. All of them were chattering pleasantly as they cooked over large metal vessels, the antithesis of the waiters outside, whose surliness was legendary.

  Barker’s progress came to a halt in front of an open doorway. Bainbridge and I came up behind and peered over my employer’s thick shoulder into Ho’s private office. I had to look twice before my eyes confirmed what I was seeing. A typical European desk was in the center of the room, but its legs had been sawn off, so that the top of it stood but two feet off the ground. Ho was seated on a cushion with crossed legs and he was smoking a metal contraption that looked a cross between a pipe, a lantern, and a small watering can. The reek of Chinese shag filled the air. The only other furniture in the room was a small red altar of wood with an image of a venerable-looking Chinese sage and a small table holding a single Pen-jing tree in a pot. The proprietor looked up at Barker with a frown, then crossed his massive, tattooed arms over his ample stomach. Ho is eighteen stone of ill humor, with weighted earlobes that hang to his shoulders and a queue draping down the front of his dirty apron like a python. He remonstrated in Mandarin, of course-or perhaps it was Cantonese-and Barker responded in kind.

 
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