The Black Hand: Excerpt

Chapter One

I was coming down the stairs on the morning of the twenty-second of August 1885, when there came a knock upon Cyrus Barker's front door. Now, I don't function well, as a rule, until coffee is singing freely in my veins, and that day was no exception. I'd applied a naked blade to my throat in two dozen strokes, and handled the task successfully, so my brain and nerves were ready for a rest; and yet there was that irritating knock. I could have answered it, of course, but getting the door was one of our butler's duties. In fact, Jacob Maccabee insisted upon it, as if opening a door was an art requiring years of rigorous discipline and study. I vacillated between the front door, Mac's private domain, and the back hallway. It was like being onstage when an actor misses his cue. I had taken two steps in the direction of the sound when the back door burst open and Mac came in at a trot, muttering under his breath in Yiddish. He brushed past me, giving me a look of minor annoyance -- probably for taking up space in his hallway -- and continued toward the front door. Freed from the responsibility and the taxing conundrum, I shambled off to the kitchen in search of sustenance.

"Bonjour, Etienne," I said to Barker's chef, though I managed to yawn through half of it.

Etienne Dummolard took the cigarette from his mouth long enough to spit upon the slate flagstones in greeting before replacing it again. In a bachelor household such as ours, words are measured slowly in the mornings. Sometimes it is quite eight o'clock before anyone risks a full sentence. I poured my coffee and sat at the table in front of the large window that faced my employer's garden.

Barker was outside, enjoying his potted Eden. He had his jacket off and was practicing one of the longer fighting forms he had learned in China while around him, Asian gardeners raked stones and pushed barrows containing new cuttings. As I watched, Mac came into view from the back door and I followed his progress over the bridge and along the crooked path to our employer. There was a yellow slip of paper in the butler's hand, a telegram. Thus endeth the mystery of the knock at the door, I thought, sucking down more coffee. I reached for the marmalade jar and a slice of toast from the rack.

A telegram is generally of interest, most people feeling that sixpence warranted information of some import, but Mac stopped at the edge of the gravel. The form was not to be interrupted. As a play, this was all mildly entertaining, but I'd almost run out of coffee. I got up and poured another cup, noting that Dummolard was making beef and mushroom pie, one of my favorites. When I returned to my seat, Barker had finished the form and was reading the telegram with one hand on his hip.

The Guv nodded and handed it to Mac, who turned back o the house. I opened the Dundee jar and began spreading marmalade onto my toast, noting that Barker was slipping on his jacket. The toast was halfway to my mouth when Mac slapped the telegram against the glass in front of me and I dropped it. According to some inevitable law of physics, the toast fell jam-side down onto my plate. Behind me, Etienne erupted in laughter. He has a rather infantile sense of humor, I've had occasion to notice.

The telegram read:

SOMETHING HERE POOLE SAYS
YOU'LL WANT TO SEE STOP
COME QUICKLY STOP WON'T
KEEP IT HERE LONG STOP
DUNHAM

Mac snatched it away and returned to his duties. Barker was just coming over the bridge. There was no time to attempt another slice of toast. I poured the rest of the scalding coffee down my throat and stood.

"No time for breakfast this morning, Etienne," I said, turning to leave.

"Imbécile," Dummolard responded. It's the same word in French and English. His free and caustic opinions would not have been tolerated in any other house in London, but, then, he did not receive any actual pay. He used our kitchen to experiment with new recipes for his Soho restaurant, Le Toison d'Or, claiming he came here out of a sense of gratitude for his former captain in the China Seas -- meaning Barker, of course. I thought it more likely he preferred to get away from his wife, Mireille, a six-foot-tall French Valkyrie with whom he had a most volatile relationship.

Once in the hall, I ran to the front door, jammed my straw boater onto my head, and retrieved my malacca stick from the stand. When Barker came through the back door, I was waiting as if I'd been there for some time.

"Good morning, Thomas," he said.

"Morning, sir," I replied. He lifted his own stick from the hall stand and we stepped out the front door into Brook Street. It was a warm morning; summer was keeping its grip on London, refusing to surrender. The houses across the street were painted in sunlight, and the birds in Newington were in full throat. It seemed a shame to bring up the subject of work.

"What do you suppose Dunham wants now?" I asked. A few months earlier we had worked on a case with Inspector Albert Dunham of the Thames Police involving missing children.

"You read the same words I did, lad," he said patiently, as a hansom eased up to the curb and we clambered aboard. We bowled off and were soon clattering down Newington Causeway on our way to London Bridge and Wapping, where the Thames Police station is situated.

Barker lit his pipe and ruminated. Any attempt on my part to instigate polite conversation would have been met with stern resistance -- and, at any rate, what would we have discussed? He attended no theater, was tone-deaf, and read few novels. I had not had time to look at the morning's newspapers; and it was too early to discuss ethics, religion, or politics. I had left without eating my toast merely to sit in a cab for forty-five minutes with nothing to do.

Eons later we arrived at the curious vertical building that housed the Thames Police and were directed around to the back to where the steam launches bobbed gently like tin boats in a bath. In the center of the dock, a large tarpaulin had been thrown over an object roughly the size of a chest of drawers. Whatever it was, the object was sodden, probably having been fished from the river. It had also been doused in carbolic, but the constables who manned the dock had managed to use both too much and not enough. It stung the nostrils but did not sufficiently cloak the reek that emanated from it.

"Hello, Barker," Dunham said, coming out of the station with Inspector Poole of the Yard. Dunham was short, barrel-chested, and bandy-legged; while Poole was tall and thin. Dunham had white hair like a wad of cotton, with brows and a mustache as black as shoe polish; whereas Poole was going bald with his long, sandy side-whiskers that swagged to his mustache like curtains. One worked for the Thames Police, the other Scotland Yard; and though the two organizations claimed to cooperate, they were as jealous of each other as a pair of opera sopranos. "Poole here said you might be interested."

"You're working with Scotland Yard on this?" Barker asked.

"I ain't decided yet," Dunham admitted, glancing at his tall companion. "It's river police business so far, but Inspector Poole has been gracious enough to contribute information. He recognized the body and suggested I telegraph you."

"Hello, Cyrus," Poole finally said. He had his hands in his pockets, as if to say he was present merely to give support and would let Dunham handle the actual investigation.

"Terry." My employer nodded.

Poole was one of Barker's friends and a seasoned member of the Criminal Investigation Department. He was also a former student, when the Guv taught a class in antagonistics in the C.I.D. building at Scotland Yard. Unlike my employer, who preferred his independence, Poole functioned well within the hierarchical confines of the Metropolitan Police. He'd need all his tact to deal with the prickly Thames Police inspector.

"Well, show us what you brought us here for," Barker said in his Lowland Scots accent.

"Very well," Dunham replied. "Mind the reek." He took a deep breath, like a diver, and crossed over to the tarpaulin, than whipped the canvas away.

Perhaps it was a trick of my mind, but it seemed as if a brown miasma rose from the horrid spectacle that the sunlight revealed to us without mercy. It was a hogshead whose top had been opened and the hoop dislodged, splaying the staves out on one side like jagged teeth. A very large man filled the barrel the way a cork does the neck of a wine bottle. He wore a checked suit of bilious green, making me think of a giant bullfrog. His face was mottled in death, a waxy yellow like cheese rind above, and rusty purple below. I was suddenly glad I'd only had coffee that morning. We all reached for our handkerchiefs and stuffed them under our noses.

Cyrus Barker moved forward and crouched, resting easily on the balls of his feet, eye to eye with the corpse. Absently, he stuffed his handkerchief in his pocket and examined the face.

"I know this man," he said. "This is Giorgio Serafini. He was an assassin, the best north of Naples. I would not have believed this without seeing it with my own eyes."

I recalled Serafini, whom Barker had questioned during our first case together. He'd worn a checked suit then as yellow as Coleman's mustard, and had a high-pitched voice with no trace of an Italian accent. He'd tried to intimidate Barker and ended up flat on his stomach in front of his employer. The meeting had taken place in a restaurant called the Neapolitan, owned by Victor Gigliotti, leader of an Italian criminal organization called the Camorra.

Barker stood again and circled the barrel. He completely removed the top hoop and jumped back as the rest of the staves fanned out. He is fastidious about his clothing. Serafini's rigid body sat upright in the center, like a stamen surrounded by petals. The effluvia began to work its way around the edges of my handkerchief. Barker coughed once into the back of his hand.

"Get that bloody carboy out here again!" Dunham barked.

One of the constables ran into the station and trotted back a minute later with a large glass container of disinfectant to pour over the head of the late Giorgio Serafini. Of the two -- the stench of decay or the burning carbolic -- I could not say which was worse.

Barker had stepped out of the way and was now staring down the river. His hand came up and he scratched under his chin, as he often did when he was thinking.

"Are there many Italians working on the river?" he asked. "Dockworkers, stevedores, and so forth?"

"You're asking me?" Dunham replied, breaking into a grin. "I thought you knew everything. Yes, as a matter of fact, there are. Hundreds of 'em. Mostly casual laborers."

"Are many of them Sicilian?"

"Sicilian?" Dunham asked, as if it were a new word to his vocabulary. "Dunno 'bout that. One I-talian's pretty much like another, I reckon."

"Oh, no," I put in. "They're all different. Italy's only been unified in recent times, and even now, the country is in discord. Most of the south is full of secret criminal societies. What are their names, sir?"

"The 'ndrangheta," Barker supplied. "The Mafia -- "

"I've heard of the Mafia," Poole said, looking up. "They're the Sicilians, right? An inspector from Palermo is at the Yard this week. He spoke of the troubles they have down there."

"This kind of trouble," Barker said, tapping the barrel with the head of his stick.

"You think the Sicilians are behind this?" Dunham asked.

Barker shrugged. "They export olive oil in Sicily, and they use a lot of barrels. This sort of thing is common there."

"Well, it ain't here," Dunham stated. "The only thing we store in barrels is good English ale, which is as it should be."

"Any sign of how he died, Cyrus?" Poole asked.

Barker nodded. "Shotgun wounds, close up. One here in the right breast, you see, and the other in the back. It scorched the clothing, and the pellet pattern is very tight. I'd say the shooter got him in the back at point-blank range and, when he was down, administered the coup de grâce."

"I wonder how long he's been in the river," Poole said.

"A week or more, I'd say," Dunham answered, being the expert on anything pertaining to the water. "They shot your boy here and bunged him in the barrel, then tossed it off a dock somewheres. The air in his lungs couldn't counteract the weight of the barrel and the flesh and bone. It sank to the bottom, probably not more than ten or fifteen feet, and stayed there for several days, putrefying. Then the body filled with enough gases to lift the barrel off the bottom again. I reckon a fellow as big as this one coulda done that. The barrel eventually came to the surface and was spotted by pedestrians on London Bridge. Some fishermen tried to pull it in, but it was too heavy without a winch. We was called in, and don't even ask me what it was like when we pried off the lid. Made me wonder how much pension I'd have if I resigned this morning."

"Have you sent word to the Poplar Morgue?" my employer asked.

"We have," Dunham said. "They are taking their time getting here with their barrow. So you think this is some sort of feud among the I-talians?"

"It would appear so. They have elevated opinions of honor and are often involved in acts of retribution such as this."

"So this fat fellow was an assassin," Poole said. "I've heard his name before but never actually laid eyes upon him. To tell the truth, for a professional killer, he doesn't look like much."

"Don't let his girth fool you; he could move very quickly and shoot with unerring accuracy. On a dare, he once shot down the barrel of another rifle at fifty yards, bursting the shell in the chamber, or so I've heard." Barker began pushing on one of the lower staves with his stick. It was not going to be an easy thing to get this huge, bloated body onto the barrow when it arrived.

"Sir," I said, as a thought occurred to me. "What about Serafini's wife? The two were inseparable."

"Very good, lad," Barker said. "You remembered."

"It's difficult to forget the first woman who throws a dagger at you."

"Well," Barker said, peering into the barrel with a sigh. "They are inseparable still. She's here at the bottom. I'm afraid the morgue may need to send another barrow."

Copyright © 2008 by Will Thomas