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Authors: Will Thomas

Tags:, #Mystery, #Historical

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BOOK: The Limehouse Text
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Going down the stairs I had a feeling I was being watched. Remembering the death of Inspector Bainbridge, I suddenly felt very exposed and unprotected. Looking over my shoulders, I noted that every window along the docks was filled with Chinamen and every one of them was pointing my way and shouting. It seemed that being shot might be the least of my troubles and that it would be prudent to make my way as far from Limehouse as possible.

There was an alley at the foot of the stair leading back to Three Colt Street and I shot through it, right into the first group of Chinese youths who had been rallied by the girl’s cries. They were not expecting me and I bowled them over like skittles. There was, unfortunately, another group forming behind them, and a smarter and better group they were, too. They met my rush well. I was pulled up off the ground, a man at each limb. I don’t know if Harm had decided at that moment that he’d had enough and jumped or whether he was pulled from my hands. All I knew was I heard a sharp yelp and the dog, Cyrus Barker’s dog, was gone.

Losing the Guv’s prize dog was catastrophic, but there were more pressing matters, such as the fellow pulling on my arm as if it were a drumstick from a Christmas goose. I heard a sickening pop and felt the shudder of the bone leaving the socket.

I realized that if I didn’t get out of there soon, what was left of me was going to end up fluttering from one of the balconies overhead. Luckily, Barker had been training me for just such an emergency. I kicked two of the fellows; threw a good, clean punch at another’s jaw with my good arm; and landed a blow with the side of my hand to the neck of a fourth. I was the number one student of the best fighter in London, after all.

Momentarily, there was a break in the crowd, and like a flash, I was through it, running for my life. The next thing I knew I was passing down the very middle of Limehouse Causeway pursued by a perfect wall of angry Chinamen.


I could tell they were still behind me, because I heard their footsteps and angry cries. Then suddenly, I did not. I ran on a few hundred yards before daring to risk looking back. I was alone, save for the few shopkeepers and patrons coming out into the street to see what the fuss was about. I stopped and caught my breath, a little self-conscious but ready to run should the mob appear again. However, they were gone. A young ruffian in bell-bottom trousers and copper-toed boots brushed past me in the opposite direction, giving me a curious once-over, and I saw a few others appear beside him. Apparently, the Chinese had reached the end of Triad territory.

I continued limping west, hoping to find a cab, and as I did, I took stock. I had lost my hat and stick, both lapels of my coat were ripped, and my shirt could be seen through the seams at each shoulder. My shoulder was throbbing, and, oh yes, there was the small matter of losing my employer’s dog.

Barker doted on that dog. The apple of his eye was running about the Asian quarter, being pursued by who knows what.

It occurred to me that they eat dogs in China. Surely the populace here must know an imperial dog from the more mundane variety. I began running again, this time to get Barker. I cared about the little creature myself. He could be a confounded nuisance sometimes—getting underfoot, sleeping on the bedcovers so I couldn’t move at night, wanting in and out, up and down—but we shared rooms and meals. He had accepted me as a member of Barker’s household. Now I’d lost him among the quays and back alleys of Limehouse.

An old hackney came into Commercial Street and I ran forward, securing it with a handful of coins. The cabman inspected my clothes unfavorably, but he could not fault the currency. I hopped aboard and sat back, my mind back on the mathematics again. Was the danger I was leaving greater or less than the danger I was heading into? I would have paid all the money I had saved in the Bank of England at that moment to have someone else inform Barker that his prized dog was missing.

He was in his office when I arrived, in his chair like any other day, regarding me stonily through those black lenses of his. Laid out in the chair in front of his desk were a fresh tie, collar, and jacket from a storeroom he kept for emergencies. He knew. Somehow, the Guv knew.

“Get changed, lad, and hurry,” he ordered. It was the telephone. Miss Winter had emerged from whatever place of safety she had hidden herself and had placed a telephone call from somewhere. Drat all these modern contrivances that complicate society. I tugged off the remains of my jacket, ignoring as best I could the fresh bloom of pain from my shoulder, and changed quickly. Outside, I joined my employer, who had already secured a cab.

“What happened?” he asked, once we were inside the hansom.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I told him, and it all tumbled out. I’d made a hash of things, I realized. I had invaded the Guv’s private life, chased off his mysterious dog keeper, thrown her maid into a mudbank, and angered the entire population of an area we were investigating, setting the case back who knew how far. I had lost his dog, injured my shoulder, not to mention destroying a suit he had paid for. My ruin was complete.

“Pray tell me you are not actively involved in bringing this agency to its knees!” he remonstrated.

“No, sir,” I muttered. “I mean, yes, sir, I am not.”

“It is not your intent, then, to pry into my private life, alienate my acquaintances, and bring me to ruin?”

“No, sir,” I murmured in utter misery.

“The fight,” he said, after a moment’s stony silence. “Tell me about the fight in the street.”

I related as well as I could remember what had happened. I thought he would be happy that I had successfully defended myself, using the methods he had taught me. Instead, Barker slid a finger up under his spectacles, pinching himself on the bridge of the nose. He gave one of his long, shuddering sighs.

That was the end of it, my entire dressing-down. It had taken less than a minute, but I knew better than to think it was all over. In Oriental terms—and when working with Barker, one must always think that way—I had lost face and very badly. It was a silent ride to Limehouse.

We eventually found ourselves in East India Dock Road, one of London’s meaner streets, but a prosperous one. Open-fronted markets displayed fish fresh from the Channel, and wagons brought in clothing and tablecloths from the West End to be laundered. Many of the shops were general shops, which meant they sold a melange of goods and could easily be fronts for fencing stolen items or houses of assignation. For once, Barker was not there to arrest malefactors. He was merely looking for a lost dog.

He began bellowing in Chinese before the cab even stopped. Standing there in the middle of the busy street, he attracted a lot of attention. Soon there was a circle of Chinamen around him, many of them casting unkind glances my way. Eventually they began talking back and the discussion became quite heated.

Our cabman, despite our request that he remain, pulled back his gelding and, before I could stop him, trotted off to safer climes. I stood pensively on the outskirts of the crowd, ready to either run again or jump into the melee as the situation required, while Barker stood in the very center. I could not make out what they were saying from their expressions, but Barker appeared to be trying to convince them of his bona fides. He went so far as to remove his cufflinks and pull back his sleeves, revealing the burns and tattoos on his forearms. Apparently, that settled the matter. Several merchants began nodding. Barker made a gesture with his arms, waving with the back of his hands as if to say “search” or “look for the dog.” There was another chorus of grins and nods and the crowd dispersed. Barker stepped back.

“That should yield some results,” he said, threading the cufflinks back into his cuffs. “Where did you last see Harm?”

“He was in Three Colt Street, heading south, I believe. I didn’t drop him, sir. My arms were pulled apart.”

“That is not more than two blocks from here. Come along.”

I am convinced Barker has as exact a knowledge of the city as a cabman or constable. Two turns later, we were staring at the residence of Miss Winter, the sight of my recent disgrace.

“Which way?”

“There, sir. Down that alley.”

Barker stopped a Chinaman, no doubt to ask after the dog. The old codger broke into a wide grin and began nodding, but quickly turned to shaking his head. No dog. We walked down Three Colt Street, looking into alleyways and calling Harm’s name. The trail seemed cold. I was definitely worried now. Regardless of what footing this put me on with my employer, I could not imagine being at home without Harm’s scratching to go in or out or dozing in the garden. I am not the kind who dotes on animals, but I had to admit the little fellow had made a place for himself in my life.

There was another matter bothering me, but I hesitated to bring it up. My arm was going numb, and moving my hand was proving less and less easy. I tucked my elbow against my side and went on looking into alleyways.

I let the lid of a dustbin fall as an Oriental youth came running around the corner of the alley we stood in, calling out. He spoke for a moment with Barker, then ran back the way he had come. The Guv crossed his arms and stood for a moment expectantly.

‘Shi Shi Ji’
?” I asked in Barker’s ear, remembering what the youth had been calling.

“I am,” he said. “It is the name I went by in China.”

“What does it mean?” I asked. “Names generally mean something in China, don’t they?”

There was a commotion in the street ahead of us.

“It means ‘stone lion,’” Barker said, looking over my shoulder.

A crowd of Orientals surged around the corner and parted, and a man stepped forward, his arms full of black fur and a wagging plume tale.

“I say, chaps, might this little fellow belong to you?” the man asked.

Harm barked at us as if he had done something clever and weren’t we the fools to be taken in by his little ruse. He jumped out of the man’s arms, landed as lightly as if he were a cat, and scampered down the alleyway toward us as fast as his short, crooked legs would allow. Barker reached down and scooped him up, and the dog lay in his arms, as snug as if he were in Abraham’s bosom, with his ridiculously long tongue hanging out of his mouth, licking at Barker’s spectacles. Unlike myself, he seemed completely unscathed by his adventure in Limehouse. If anything, he looked refreshed.

Barker had his arms full and was paying attention to the dog, but I was free to concentrate on Harm’s rescuer. The fellow doffed his top hat and gave a formal bow. As my eyes took him in, I began to wonder if I had somehow followed Alice down the hole after the White Rabbit. For strangeness, the fellow rivaled the mad Hatter or the Cheshire-Cat, but he gave no impression that he knew how bizarre he looked. He merely placed the hat upon his head again and favored me with a big smile.

“Pleased to meet you, old sport. Woo’s the name. James Woo, but everyone calls me Jimmy.”

Jimmy Woo stood about five foot six and wore a spotless charcoal gray coat with striped trousers. His tie was lavender silk, as were his gloves and handkerchief. He wore a monocle and his pumps were polished to a high gloss that even our butler, Jacob Maccabee, would respect, and all this topped by a face as Chinese as fried rice. He wore no queue and his hair was combed back in one long wave to his neck, brilliantined to a shine that rivaled his shoes. I admit I gawked and am certain my jaw was hanging open, but he did not seem to notice. By now, he must have been used to it.

“Er…Thomas Llewelyn,” I finally got out. “Where did you find him?”

“Gorging himself on a dead haddock on the docks. The dog and I have been taking the air of the quarter. He’s a corking little fellow.”

He had no trace of an Oriental accent, but his manner was like a music hall version of an English lord. What series of circumstances had come together to create such a person as this? It was too much to take in.

The Guv came forward and shook Woo’s hand, as if he were any other Englishman. “Mr. Woo, I’m Cyrus Barker. Thank you for taking care of my dog.”

“Oh, ’twas nothing, a trifle. Couldn’t leave the poor chap to fend for himself, now could I? Frightfully dangerous down in Limehouse come nightfall.”

“Upon my soul, Mr. Woo, your English is excellent, if I may say it,” Barker said.

I’d have been scratching my head if my arm could have reached it. Barker seemed to like the blighter, but then, he always has a soft spot for eccentrics.

“Read history at Cambridge. Been here for a dog’s years. I’m an interpreter. Might you be Cyrus Barker, the detective?”

“Enquiry agent, yes.”

“Deuced convenient. I’ve been looking all over for you, you see. I am working for a chap in the Foreign Office upon a certain private matter and he would very much like to make your acquaintance.”

“I am rather busy at the moment,” Barker told him.

Being refused brought the Oriental out in him. He smiled and bowed his head to my employer. “Sorry, but I am afraid a meeting is essential. You may speak with him today at his club or he shall hie it over to your chambers tomorrow and cut up ever so rough. What do you say? I did find your dog. It wouldn’t hurt to talk to the F.O., eh? Say, one o’clock? I’ll arrange it.”

Barker absently stroked Harm’s forehead, which the dog leaned into with his protruding eyes closed. “Where?”

“That’s the spirit. The Oriental Club, near Hanover Square. The chap you want is named Trelawney Campbell-Ffinch. I won’t be there, I’m afraid. It would be simply too much for them, having an actual Oriental on the premises. Wouldn’t want the old duffers choking on their port. Must dash. I’ve always got my fire stoked with irons, don’tcha know. Nice meeting you, gents.”

He patted the dog on the head with his lavender-gloved hand and then skipped off to his next appointment, whatever it was.

“So, the Foreign Office wants me, does it?” Barker mused. “Why did they not send someone ’round to the office? We are but a few blocks away. Speaking of the office, let us return. Mac shall have to harness the hansom and come retrieve Harm.”

I would have paid a week’s salary to see Mac’s face when he heard. He cannot abide the dog and especially any added bit of pampering the Guv orders. This would send him through the roof.

“Certainly, old sport,” I said.

“None of your cheek, now, lad.”

We walked three or four blocks north, where we met the tram service that runs longitudinally across the East End. I was wondering if they would allow the dog aboard the old vehicle, though Harm had insinuated himself inside Baker’s cavernous coat, with only his goggly eyes peering out. Like a dolt, I reached for the bar to pull myself onto the vehicle with my injured arm and instantly regretted it.


Barker stopped and surveyed me quizzically. “Is your shoulder bothering you? Perhaps you have put it out of joint. Let’s get back off the tram, lad. There is only one thing to be done.”

“What is that, sir?” I asked, wincing through the pain.

“I must get you to a Chinese bonesetter. It is fortunate you were injured in Limehouse.”

BOOK: The Limehouse Text
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