The Limehouse Text: Excerpt


I was falling through an indigo sky. I remember the wind whistling in my ears and my coat flapping about my knees as I plummeted. My head hurt, and as I gazed up into the remote, star-studded vault of the heavens, I was having a little trouble piecing together exactly how I had gotten there. I felt as if I'd suddenly fallen off the edge of the earth and would hurtle forever, but the logical portion of my mind told me that all this falling must ultimately end. Unless Parliament had suddenly repealed Newton's law of gravity, I was eventually going to strike something, and it wasn't going to be pleasant.

Raising my head just a little, I saw the large edifice of a bridge passing swiftly by, black against the cobalt night. Vaguely, I remembered thoughts I'd had once of jumping from a bridge and shuffling off this mortal coil, but that had been a few months ago. Had I finally done it? I wondered. To be truthful, I wasn't sure I had the nerve. If this was an attempt, I could congratulate myself that it was successful, which was a novelty, since I'd rarely been successful at anything in my twenty-two years. If that actually was a bridge above me, then presumably I would strike water shortly, which was far preferable to pavement, being less messy. I had another thought, or the beginning of one, but then I struck the water, and it was gone forever.

Water is something I've always considered soft, yielding, and changeable. One drinks it, pours it into vessels; it soaks into the ground. This water was about as yielding as cement. I struck the water with a loud slap, limbs splayed, flat upon my back. It actually might have killed me were it not for the coat that my employer, Cyrus Barker, had given me and insisted I wear. It was of Barker's own design, with built-in pistol holders and a lead lining, near impervious to bullets. I account that it saved my life. It was also very heavy, unfortunately, which explains why I did not dawdle on the surface of the Thames but continued my descent.

The Thames is not the most pristine of rivers, despite the paintings one sees in Grosvenor Gallery of idyllic country scenes, men punting along the river, poles in hand, while their best girls lie in the stern in immaculate white dresses, shaded from the sun by parasols. It's not like that at all. I would think twice about offering a glass of it to even the most hateful of aunts, even if I were her sole legatee. It was certainly not a place to go swimming in July. But then, the choice had rather been taken out of my hands.

Eventually, I came to rest on the bed of silt at the bottom, among the rubbish and detritus of London civilization. I lay for a moment, blinking up into the total blackness. Perhaps I should just give up, I thought. It would certainly be easier. But, no, something within me refused to surrender life without a fight. I had to get out of that coat, but it clung to me like a paramour. I struggled and flailed until reluctantly it started to give me up. I was tugging desperately on the second sleeve when I realized I was clutching something that was too big to get through it. It was my pistol. I'd forgotten that I'd been holding it before the fall. No matter. I let it go and pulled my limb through, finally free of the coat.

All I had to do was to swim to the surface and to breathe sweet air again. But in which direction was it? I was in stygian darkness, and my convulsions had even lost me the bottom I had just rested upon. I began to panic, and some of my precious air escaped. I reached frantically after the bubbles: they went down or, rather, up. I was on my head. I turned and swam after them.

I had no idea how far I'd fallen through the water, but the air I'd let escape needed to be replenished. I thrashed upward as my lungs began to insist, to scream for air. I became convinced I wasn't going to make it. In two seconds, I was about to breathe in that fatal gulp of water. Thomas Llewelyn was going to fulfill his destiny and become another anonymous floater on the river.

Give up, my limbs cried, going slack. It's dozens of feet to the surface. You'll never make it. Just then, my mind seemed to split in two. One part began to make peace with its Maker, preparing to be ushered into His presence -- The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want -- while the other, less pious, more skeptical side wanted to unravel one last puzzle before going into the beyond. I needed to disregard the pain of my splitting head and aching body and try to remember the events that had brought me here. In effect, before I died, I wanted to solve my own murder.

Copyright © 2005 by Will Thomas

Chapter One


It was a sublime sound, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. It wasn't loud -- not much more than a thunderclap, really -- but it was profound. I felt it echo from the outbuildings in our garden before reaching my ears. My employer, London enquiry agent Cyrus Barker, looked at me through his opaque spectacles, as if to ask What the deuce has happened now?

Barker and I had been in the garden behind his house, performing what he called "internal exercises." It had been two and a half months since he'd hired me as his assistant, and I was still recovering from the effects of our first case in which I'd been injured severely, not to mention nearly killed. It was in the back of his mind, I believe, to take advantage of my convalescence and turn me into a wiry bantamweight through the physical training he taught at Scotland Yard. He had me at the dumbbells and Indian clubs constantly. I didn't object, because, first of all, he paid my salary and, second, I felt the training was to my benefit. The internal exercises were another matter.

There we were in our shirtsleeves, moving placidly across the lawn, waving our arms in slow, precise movements resembling postures of self-defense, save that one would have been struck long before completing any of the motions. Barker, who had learned the art while growing up in China, took it all very seriously, but to me, the exercises were no more useful than playing hopscotch. I did them all the same, of course. Aside from paying my salary, he also provided room and board.

The sky had been clear that day, and we had been treated to a shimmering sunset, blood red at first, as if a volcano were spewing forth west of us, then giving way to salmon and violet and finally deepest blue. The ornate garden behind Barker's house in Newington was a pleasant place to be on a warm evening in late May. When I had first seen it in mid-March, I thought it austere and exotic with its large rocks, pebbles, and dwarf evergreens. Now the garden had erupted in a riot of color, resembling one of Mr. Whistler's mad canvases, and Barker and his crew of Chinese gardeners were hard-pressed, clipping and pruning, to return it to its more stoic appearance.

Harm, self-appointed guardian of the property, reigned over his domain from a flat rock in the stone garden. Barker had informed me he was one of less than a dozen Chinese temple dogs, or Pekingese, in Europe. The dowager empress of China had given the dog to him "for services rendered," but what those services were, he had not revealed. The Guv'nor could be exasperatingly reticent when it suited him. Our motions might have interested the little dog had he not seen us do them a thousand times. From where I stood in the bed of thyme, slowly waving my arms about like an inmate from Bethlehem Asylum just down the street, I could hear the dog snoring on the rock. I rather envied the little fellow.

It didn't help my concentration that we faced the back of the house. On the other side of the door, there was a well-appointed kitchen with a pantry, which at that moment contained an apple pie with cognac and caramelized sugar, prepared by one of London's premier chefs, Etienne Dummolard. Etienne came in most mornings from his Soho restaurant, Le Toison d'Or, with enough freshly prepared food to last us through the day, like so much manna from heaven.

After the pie, I promised myself, I would sit down with a book in the library. Barker was an inveterate book collector, and being a Scot, he had a complete set of the Waverly novels. I had been working my way through them and was now up to The Heart of Midlothian.

"One more time, lad, and we're through for the night," Barker said.

I sighed and raised my protesting arms again. It was then that we heard the boom. We both knew instantly that something had happened. If we hadn't, Harm had. He began barking hysterically. It was his clarion cry, his alarm for us mortals too dull to appreciate that something significant had occurred. In answer, we heard dozens of responses from other canine sentinels across London.

We needed no other warning. Barker and I sprinted across the lawn toward the back door. Once inside, we skidded across the polished floor and climbed the first staircase. Running past my room, we mounted the stairs to Barker's aerie. My employer seized a small box I'd never noticed before from one of the tables and tripped its latch. Inside was a brass telescope, a relic of his sailing days, I presumed. He flicked open the telescope and scanned the horizon to the west from one of the dormer windows.

"Anything?" I asked. "Anything?"

"Nothing appears to be on fire, but there is a haze on the far side of the river," Barker responded.

I took the telescope eagerly and looked myself but saw only what my employer had said, a whitish haze over the river where our offices stood.

"What should we do?" I asked.

"I suppose we should go and see if anything is amiss."

The latter seemed as sensible a decision as any. I left him and went down to the first floor for my jacket. When I came downstairs a few minutes later, knotting my tie, Barker's butler, Jacob Maccabee, was waiting in the hall with a look of concern on his face.

"It could have been a factory accident, I suppose," he said, straightening my knot. "Could you hear which direction it came from?"

"You know the garden," I answered. "It's like sitting in a soup bowl, with those high brick walls. The Guv looked toward the west."

I hoped Mac was right, and our going out would be for naught. A factory accident would be preferable to the other possibility, a bomb. Since the previous year, a radical group calling itself the Irish Republican Brotherhood had been leading a dynamiting campaign against the city in an attempt to force a bill for Home Rule. Several bombs had been located safely by the authorities, and one had exploded harmlessly in the baggage room of Victoria Station, but the fact that the attempts had been unsuccessful was not a comfort to most Londoners. The Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard hastily formed a new section, the Special Irish Branch, to safeguard the public and the Royal Family. Despite their efforts, neither Mac nor I was surprised at the thought that the I.R.B. might strike again.

Finally, Barker came down the stairs. He was soberly dressed in a black cutaway coat, his maroon tie thrust up under a wing collar and held with a pearl stickpin. He stepped between us and reached for a stick from the hall stand before opening the door. I naturally followed. The pie and Midlothian would have to wait.

Our hansom cab, which Barker had acquired during our last investigation two months before, was quartered just a half mile away to the east. I assumed my employer would send me to rouse the stable boy, something I'd prefer not to do after a full day's work and those dratted exercises. As it turned out, that would have been preferable to what Barker had in mind.

"Right, then," he stated. "Let's hop it, lad."

"Hop it, sir?"

"Aye. We'll walk. You can use the exercise."

He didn't waste breath on conversation, but set off northwest along London Road, his stick swinging dangerously back and forth. At an inch or two over six feet in height, he was a head taller than I. Consequently, I had to double his footsteps in order to keep up.

Most of the streets on the south side of London were empty, the shops locked and dark. The residents, enjoying their well-deserved evening of rest, seemed unconcerned by the noise that had brought us out on this quiet evening. A chorus of crickets chirped in the vestiges of Lambeth Marsh south of us, accompanied by the low croak of the frogs that fed on them. If I closed my eyes, I could almost feel as if I were back in the country at my childhood home in Wales.

Barker suddenly dodged off Waterloo Road, and had I not been trying to stay close, I would have shot past the lane he ducked into. For the next several minutes I felt as if I were in a maze, following my employer from street to passage to alleyway. Before I knew it, we'd come up along some railroad sleepers, and then we were on a bridge. Not Waterloo, nor Westminster, but a smaller bridge between the two.

"What bridge is this?" I asked, peering over the side at the Thames, which looked as thin and black as India ink.

"The Charing Cross Railway and Footbridge," he called back, over his shoulder.

"Where does it fetch up?"

"On the Embankment behind Scotland Yard."

"Wait," I said, trying to catch my breath. "You mean there's been a footbridge right by our offices all this time, and you didn't tell me?"

"If I told you everything, Llewelyn, how ever would you learn anything for yourself?"

I noticed an immediate difference on the west side of the river. There was a chalky grit in the air. The gaslights were balls of light on stalks, as if a globe of frosted glass had been fitted over each one. The haze grew thicker as we approached, and as I watched, wraithlike figures began to come forward out of the gloom. I'd have taken them for ghosts, if I believed in such things, but as we passed among them, they seemed tangible enough; normal citizens, covered in brick dust from head to toe, all staring with dazed expressions out of red-rimmed eyes. Barker and I reached for our pocket handkerchiefs and pushed ourselves through the foglike haze and the crowd of shocked and bedraggled residents. In Whitehall Place, we had to pick our way around piles of fallen bricks. It was only when we crossed Whitehall Street and looked back that we could see the full devastation.

"My word," I murmured. It was the thirtieth of May 1884, and someone had just blown up Scotland Yard.

Copyright © 2005 by Will Thomas