Read The Limehouse Text Online
Authors: Will Thomas
Tags: #Amazon.com, #Mystery, #Historical
It took close to a half hour of rubbing and several pencils before the two of us finished the blotter. As imperfect as the images were, they gave us a very good look into the mind of the late Inspector Nevil Bainbridge. The constable was correct: the inspector had been quite an artist.
“Lad, get out your notebook,” the Guv ordered.
I retrieved it from my pocket, set it down on a cabinet, and prepared to write in my best Pitman shorthand, despite not being able to hold the pad with one arm in a cast.
“In the upper left-hand corner we have the letters
enclosed in a diamond. There is nothing along that same latitude until we get to the middle of the paper, where we discover the head and shoulders of a sinister-looking fellow in a wide-brimmed hat and fur collar who I suspect is Mr. K’ing. Close to the upper right-hand corner, there is another face, larger and very wild: fierce teeth, bristling mustache, rolling eyes, a complete caricature of an Asian face. By the corner of the face is a wooden flail, two sticks connected by a rope. In the middle, there is a form bent over a line, loose, like one of those string puppets. What are they called?”
“Yes. The line stretches for some distance across the picture, then coils into a loop of rope. By the figure’s shoulder is a rough shape, which I believe is a coffin. Near the center of the page is a female form, nicely rendered but without a face. She wears a shawl and straw hat, and her hair is cut straight across her shoulders. I presume it is light colored, for he does not appear to have darkened it. Blond or red. The pose, holding the shawl around her, is demure and yet there is some voluptuousness to the figure. Two men are off to the right, in profile, as if watching the girl. One is taller than the other. They are shaded heavily, but I believe them to be Campbell-Ffinch and his interpreter, Woo.
“On the bottom row, there is a figure slumped on the floor and a group of lines going back and forth away from him, like the teeth of a saw or steps. I adduce it is the image of Jan Hurtz, whom Bainbridge would have seen firsthand. There is a small sketch of a ship, possibly the Blue Funnel ship
We shall see. Here, where the coil of rope ends are three balls and a ticket, the one we gave to Hurtz’s brother. There is an almost comically menacing face, with a heavy beard, leering and ready to devour the maiden in the center. And here, at the very lower right-hand corner, is the face of my late assistant, whom Bainbridge had the poor taste to show as we found him on that terrible day, eyes half shut, arms thrown wide, and the bullet hole dead center. That is all.”
“That’s one, two, five…nine figures altogether, and we know but half of them,” I pointed out.
“Can you draw, lad?”
“Not this well, sir.”
“See if you can copy all these images. Let me go get the constable again.”
He returned a few minutes later with the constable, who scratched his chin at our work. “That’s good thinking,” he admitted. “I would never have thought of it. This is the property of Scotland Yard, however. You won’t be able to take it with you.”
“We understand that. Do any of these people look familiar to you?”
“This ugly brute here,” he said, indicating the fierce face in the upper right-hand corner, is Charlie Han. He’s a young tough in Limehouse with a sizable corner of the betel nut market in his pocket. Inspector Bainbridge was always hauling him in on small charges. Now this coffin here and the fellow on the line, I think that’s Jonas Coffin’s place. A Chinaman died there last year. Funny name. Chow, I believe, Luke Chow. Coffin owns a penny hang in West India Dock Road. And there’s no missing who the girl is. We call her the Belle o’ Pennyfields. Works at a chandlery since her uncle was killed a year ago.”
“Killed, you say?” Barker asked.
“Yes, sir. He was robbed one evening. New Year’s Day, it was. Found dead behind the counter of his shop, with his neck broke, from what I hear.”
“What is the girl’s name?” Barker asked.
“Gypsy name, she has. Petulengro, same as her uncle’s. Hettie Petulengro.”
The Guv turned to me. “There is your
“And what, may I ask, is going on here?” an official voice demanded from the doorway. It was Terence Poole, and he did not look pleased. He dismissed the constable with a glower and then turned on us.
“That is Metropolitan Police property,” Poole said, pointing at the blotter.
“We were merely deciphering it,” Barker said. “We have identified all but one of the figures here.”
“You needn’t try to sound all helpful with me,” Poole said, reaching into his pocket. “I spoke to the Dutchman who says you took possession of the book in his brother’s pawnshop.” He tossed a business card on the blotter. It was the very one he had given to Hurtz. “I want that book!”
“I no longer have it,” Barker stated, shrugging. “As I said at the inquest, I gave it to a Chinaman.”
Poole looked at him skeptically. “You handed it over to the Chinese, just like that? I know better. You can’t convince me you didn’t recognize it for what it was.”
“Believe as you like,” Barker said.
“I shall. We can detain you here until you talk. I am the investigating officer. I can put you in with Ho. Did you give the text to any passing Chinaman or to one of them in particular?”
Barker sat silent. This situation was a little different from speaking with Campbell-Ffinch or to Dr. Vandeleur. Terence Poole was a friend as well as a police inspector.
“Cyrus,” Poole said, leaning over my employer, “did you have the book in your possession in the tunnel when we were there together earlier?”
Again, the Guv was silent. I saw the skin behind Poole’s sandy side-whiskers grow red with anger. He was one step away from having us detained. If that happened, what would happen to me? Barker may be able to sit like a jade Buddha during an interrogation, but I wasn’t certain I could.
Cyrus Barker finally broke his silence. “There is more to this than a Scotland Yard matter, Terry. There are international considerations, and there are moral ones.”
Poole stood there, looking down at Barker, with arms akimbo. Both men were so still that I was afraid to move, for fear of breaking the tableau. “Get out!” the inspector finally snapped. “Just get out, blast you. I cannot cover this up for you. This is a serious trial of our friendship, Cyrus, and you can get into a great deal of trouble over this.”
Barker shot out the door, leaving me to dance around the inspector with my cast and notebook. I followed him out to the entrance, where we turned up our collars and opened our umbrellas before plunging out into the drizzle once more. The Guv looked over at me and I’m blessed if the fellow didn’t have a look of satisfaction upon his face.
“Let’s make our way to West India Dock Road, lad,” he said. “That went better than expected.”
HE ESTABLISHMENT OF MR. JONAS COFFIN WAS
in a warehouse that had seen better days seven decades before. There was no sign over the door, but when Barker accosted a passing stranger that was the door he pointed to. Barker opened the door into a room illumined by a single candle. Our advent brought a cry from the proprietor within, who must have eyes like a rat.
“We’s closed,” he bellowed. “Don’t open’ll eight-firty tonight.”
Barker asked me for a half sovereign and tossed it onto the table. The fellow snatched it up as quickly as it landed.
Coffin was a dried-up skeleton of a man with a hooked nose that looked as if it had been pasted on as a prank. He might have been a stage version of Dickens’s Scrooge. By the candlelight, he’d been playing a one-man hand of cards, but now that there was money to be made, he slid them into the pocket of the greasy old pea jacket he wore.
“I am a private enquiry agent. My name is Barker.”
“Yer, I hearda ya. What can I do for you, guv’nor?”
“Would I be correct that there was a death here a year ago?”
“’At’s roight. Feller slipped his cable right here on the lines. Nat’ral causes it was ruled. Not a bad way to go, I reckon. Give me Fiddler’s Green over Davy Jones’s locker any day.”
“Lines?” I asked.
“This is a penny hang, lad. Sailors pay a penny to spend the night hanging on lengths of rope stretched across the room.”
“All night?” I asked. “Don’t they sleep?”
“Of course they sleep,” Coffin explained, “which is more than they’d do in some doss-house at twice the price. A sailor’s feet might be on solid ground, but his guts is still a-rollin’ with the waves. It’s agony on him to lie in a real bed, but you just put him on one of my lines and he’ll be right as rain. Sleeps like he’s in his mother’s arms, he does. And the sailor doesn’t have to worry that he’d get his hard-earned wages nicked in his sleep, neither. I’ve got a belayin’ pin handy and I’ll nobble any suspicious character I come acrost. You see, gentlemen, Jonas Coffin is the sailor’s friend.”
Despite the proprietor’s assurances, I was still a trifle confused. “How do they keep from falling off?”
“They’s sailors, young-fella-me-lad. Every sailor worth his grog knows how to catch a kip leaning over the bow or in the rigging. They come by it natural like. And when one man moves, it sets them all swaying, just like the swell o’ the seas. After one night on my lines, the sailing man has his land legs under him and is ready to spend the night with his missus again, if’n you get my meaning, sirs.”
Barker had used up his supply of patience. “This fellow who died, was he a regular sailor?”
“Chinaman. Blue Funnel man, I reckon. Scrawny like all them fellas, but he walked in on his own two feet. He might’ve had a drink or two, but I’ve seen worse.”
“The sailors don’t mind sharing a line with a Chinaman?” I asked.
“Not at all. We’re what you call cosmopolitan. We get all kinds. When I was a sailor, the only ones we refused to have aboard were women and Finns.”
“Bad luck,” both he and Barker said at once, as if it was common knowledge. I let the matter drop.
“Was the sailor young or old?” Barker asked.
“Middling, far as I could tell. Thirties, maybe. Hard to say with Chinese, sometimes.”
“You tended the lines all night—is that correct?”
“It is. Me and my trusty belaying pin. Sleeping’s a waste with me, at my age. I throws a hammock up in the afternoons and get a good three hours kip. ’At’ll do for the likes of Jonas Coffin.”
“He was dead in the morning, then.”
“Dead and stiff, and hanging over the line like he’d been carved that way, and not a scratch on him. He weren’t shot nor stabbed nor coshed that anyone could see, not even Inspector Bainbridge, what investigated the case hisself. Natural causes, the coroner ruled. I got to speak at the inquest.”
“I take it you had never seen the Chinaman before that night.”
“Correct, Mr. Barker, and I don’t forget faces.”
“You’ve more than earned your half sovereign, Mr. Coffin.”
The old sailor flashed a set of horrid teeth. “Well, you and I, we’re men o’ the world. Care for a tot?” He raised a stoneware jug which could only contain rum.
“I thank you,” the Guv said, “but save the ration for your own health. Good day to you.”
Outside again, Barker spoke. “I believe we shall find that the sailor slain in this building was the monk who escaped from the Xi Jiang Monastery with the book. His killer must have got here ahead of him, but before he was killed, the monk somehow got rid of the book. That brings the number of deaths in this case to at least six.”
Our next stop was the chandler’s shop in Pennyfields. The window was full of large coils of rope, ship’s lamps, and a headless dummy wearing a sealskin jacket. When we stepped inside, Barker inhaled as if we were stepping into some fine restaurant. I sniffed the air myself. Hemp and creosote, salt and mustiness was all I could smell, but then I was a landsman. Seeing my employer, a former ship’s captain, as he stroked a length of rope, made me wonder how much he missed the sea.
“Can I help you?” a woman’s voice came from somewhere. It took me a moment to spot her. She had come through a curtain and was leaning against the counter. Were it not for the contralto voice, I’d have taken her for a child. She had a button nose, kohl-smeared eyes, and an air of impudence. Her hair was henna colored and looked as if it had been hacked off all around at the jaw. She wore a paisley shawl over a white blouse and large, hoop earrings. I recognized her as the girl in Bainbridge’s drawing.
“We wish to speak to the proprietor,” Barker said, removing his bowler hat. I followed suit.
“You’re lookin’ at her, ain’t ya?” she said offhandedly.
For once, my employer was nonplussed.
“Isn’t it rather unusual for a Romany woman to own a chandlery?” he asked.
“If it’s any of your business, which it ain’t, we don’t exactly get together for tea, so I wouldn’t know. It ain’t usual to see two toffs in Pennyfields, neither, but you don’t see me complaining.”
I saw the Guv suppress a smile. This girl was sharp as a knife.
“I am an enquiry agent, miss, and I—”
“Public or private?”
“We are private enquiry agents.”
“Hop it, then,” the girl said suddenly. “I don’t have to answer no questions. Leave, if you ain’t buying.”
This girl had brass, I’ll give her that. She wasn’t bad to look at, either.
Barker seemed to summon himself a moment, meditating or strategizing or communing with his Maker. After a moment he spoke again. “And if we were buying?”
She came down the counter closer to us. “That’s different. You buy one item per question and I’ll talk me head off.”
“Very well.” Barker looked through a selection of jack-knives on the counter and set one before her. “Tell me about your uncle’s murder.”
“Someone broke his neck for him a year ago on New Year’s Day, around closing time. Police didn’t do nothing, ruddy useless peelers. Said it was a burglary. Burglary, my bonnet. Nothing was taken.”
Barker looked both ways, then moved over to a row of books and scooped them up. They were mostly nautical tomes and manuals, though I did spot a collection of sea stories. He set the first book down on the counter.
“Do you keep a log of the items you purchase from sailors?” he pursued.
“Course we do. We’re not total fools.”
He set down another volume. “Did you work here before your uncle died or did you come afterward?”
“I worked at Bryant and May’s match factory, but I worked here as well now and then. Why should Uncle Lazlo hire someone when he can squeeze the work out of his only living relative, right?”
“Did you happen to notice a young Chinaman here around that New Year’s Day? I suspect he might have been looking through these very books.”
The girl thought for a moment. “Nah. Sorry. Can’t recollect offhand. I wasn’t here all the time, you see. Used to have a life, I did. Not like now. I’m about as dusty as these bleedin’ books. I might as well hop up on that shelf you just emptied.”
Barker set another book on top of the growing stack. “Is there a chance I can take a look at the log of incoming items?”
“Not a chance. Not for two boxfuls of musty books. Not for all the musty books in London.”
“What about something more…expensive?” Barker began to look about the shop. “Then can we call it square?”
“Now you’re talkin’.”
Barker walked slowly through the room, examining sextants, harpoons, and fishing nets. Finally he looked out the front window.
“The jacket in the window, lad. Bring it here.”
I obeyed and went over to the window. I unbuttoned the sealskin jacket and brought it to my employer, leaving the headless dummy naked.
“It looks rather small,” I pointed out as I handed it to him.
“You surely don’t think I would wear this thing. I am purchasing it for you.”
“Me!” I protested, but Barker had already thrown it over my shoulders. It was pure white, made of the pelts of baby seals. I didn’t approve of killing the poor beasts just to make a coat, but I knew better than to protest in front of Barker. He was on a case and would not have cared if the coat were made from kittens.
The girl broke into a grin and even gave a whistle. She had very nice teeth, I noticed. “Oooh,” she said to me. “Don’t you look flash?”
“May I see the log now?” Barker asked her.
“Not so fast, your worship. Ain’t seen as much as a sou yet. Three pound even for the coat; three, one and six for the rest. A girl’s got to make a living.”
“Three pounds for a coat?” I asked as I took the money from my pocket.
“Where else in London are you gonna find sealskin?”
“Thomas,” Barker said, “pay the girl.”
“I don’t believe I caught your name,” I said to her.
“Don’t believe I threw it your way. It’s Hestia Petulengro. Hettie to my friends. I don’t number private detectives among me friends.”
“The log!” Cyrus Barker boomed. His patience had come to an end.
“All right!” she bristled back at him. “Keep your shirt on! Is he always like this? You poor blighter. The log is back here.”
She took a large book from behind the counter and set it in front of Barker. While he examined it, Hettie and I played involuntary peekaboo. I looked at her; she looked away. I looked at Barker and felt her eyes on me, then I looked up and it started all over again. I fancied half the East End might be in love with her.
“Here!” my employer said a minute later. “Luke Chow (D)
one sailors’ kit; one knife; one book, Chinese. Taken in New Year’s Day. What does the
Miss Petulengro seemed disposed to argue for another item, then changed her mind. “Deceased. My uncle often bought dead sailors’ effects from the ships that came through, regular-like. I do remember when that book came in, because it was an English sailor, but the book was Chinese. Come to think of it, it was a funny little book, full of stick figures fighting and foreign letters.”
“Do you have the sailor’s name?”
“No, we don’t ask. Not everything that comes in was purchased legally.”
“What became of the book?”
“Uncle Lazlo sold it later that day. I remember him remarking on it, wondering who’d buy such a thing.”
“Did he say who purchased it?”
“Have you ever heard of a Mr. K’ing?”
The girl suddenly went cold. She gathered her shawl about her. “Here now, there’s no need to be bringing him into this.”
“So you know of him.”
“This is Limehouse, mister. He owns half the district.”
“Did you know Inspector Bainbridge?”
“Oh, everyone knew old Bainy. He ran Limehouse like a machine. Bit rough if you rubbed him on the warp instead of the woof. He investigated my uncle’s death.”
“Do you get ruffians in here?” I spoke up, remembering the toughs I had seen in Bethnal Green.
“Not this side of Limehouse Causeway. This is triad territory, but I’m sure you know that.”
“Did Inspector Bainbridge ever come back and question you about the case or mention any leads?” Barker asked.
“He’d check on me from time to time. Even made him a cuppa tea once, but I don’t appreciate having policemen underfoot. Never did find my uncle’s killer.”
“You live over the shop, then.”
“I own this whole building,” she said with some pride.
“Your uncle gave it all to you in his will?”
“He did. Fair and square. Not that it’s been a great and glorious thing, being a shopkeeper, I might add. Sometimes I wish I was carefree and working in the factory again. I’m just scrapin’ by here, except for when private detectives come in and want questions answered.”
“Agents,” Barker corrected. “We are private enquiry agents. Now tell me, did you have a close relationship with your uncle?”