The Limehouse Text: Excerpt

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 Engpsh 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 feepng 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 pke 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 pfe or, rather, both our pves.

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 pttle. 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 spts 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 pfe 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.

Copyright © 2005 by Will Thomas