Authors: Will Thomas
Also by Will Thomas
Some Danger Involved
To Kingdom Come
The Limehouse Text
The Hellfire Conspiracy
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2008 by Will Thomas
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Touchstone Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
First Touchstone trade paperback edition July 2008
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Thomas, Will, 1958–
The black hand : a Barker & Llewelyn novel / Will Thomas.
“A Touchstone Book.”
1. Barker, Cyrus (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Private investigators—England—London—Fiction. 3. Great Britain—History—Victoria, 1837–1901—Fiction. 4. London (England)—Fiction. I. Title.
I’m not interested in the status quo;
I want to overthrow it
THE BLACK HAND
STEPPED ACROSS THE SILL OF THE CONSERVATORY
, glass crunching under the heels of my boots, and steadied my Webley pistol with both hands, reluctant to step inside. It was black as pitch in there, so unlike the safe, comfortable, gas-lit room I was leaving. I could see the palm trees silhouetted against the gray night sky, writhing like demons. The glass had been broken at both ends, affording someone easy access to the house we were supposedly guarding; and the plants brought here from five continents were being buffeted by a gale coming from the Channel. Under such conditions, I’d generally tell the estate owner to go hang himself, but this wasn’t just any estate owner. It was
estate we were guarding, the Widow’s, the lady love of my employer, Cyrus Barker; and I would have done anything to protect her.
The low-lying plants clawed at my trouser legs as I shuffled down the narrow aisle in a fencing stance, leading with my right foot and drawing up my left before stepping out again. I had reason to suspect there was someone in that hot-house jungle, or I’d have been where any sane person would
be at that time of night—in bed and thankful for a sturdy roof over my head. Why are leaves from foreign plants always thin and spiky, a danger to one’s eyes? Why can’t they be round and safe like English leaves?
“Step forward,” I muttered to myself. “Step forward. Blast! Where is he?”
Overhead, above the outstretched palm trees and the glass and ironwork canopy, the roiling heavens suddenly released a bolt of lightning that branched across the leaden sky, accompanied by a crash of thunder that rivaled in loudness the explosives I’ve worked with in the past. All the blackness to which I’d become accustomed was replaced in a heartbeat with whiteness, a polar scene that flashed for a brief second before darkness enveloped us again. That instant revealed the location of the intruder, and I didn’t hesitate. My pistol barked, but he was no longer where he’d been.
Reaching a corner, I headed off in a new direction. The rain began in earnest then, beating overhead like grapeshot. Neither of us could rely on sight or sound anymore; we would keep going until we blundered into each other and one of us died. It came sooner than I expected. A splash of lightning revealed an outstretched arm; and before I could move, a blade sliced across my knuckles, causing me to drop my pistol, which skittered across the concrete paving stones to some unknown position. My assailant pressed his advantage, attacking again with an overhand motion, ready to bury a dagger in my chest for decoration, if I had no objections.
I rather thought I had. I raised my left arm to block the stabbing motion; and his blade made a grating, metallic sound against my forearm. Another bolt illuminated us briefly, revealing
that we were both small and swarthy and armed with the same weapon, as I slid a ten-inch dagger out of my sleeve. My brief scrutiny revealed that my adversary wore the flat black cap of the Sicilians. The sky went black again, and the intruder melted away among the waving fronds.
I backed away until I felt the cold comfort of a glass wall behind me and sidled along it, knowing I’d either circumvent him or meet him coming from the other side. The manor house seemed remote just then, surrounded by this artificial forest created at a rich woman’s whim. Pushing through the growth underfoot, I waited for another bolt of lightning to provide a glimpse of my attacker.
Suddenly, the glass behind me shattered as he burst through in a hail of shards. We stabbed at each other back and forth, blocking inexpertly in the semidarkness. I was thinking that I’d had a single lesson in the Sicilian blade, while this lad had likely been indoctrinated in it since youth, when his blade finally found purchase, entering the skin just below my left eye and plowing a furrow almost to my ear. Hot blood spilled down my cheek, and I lurched away into the fury of the gale he had brought with him, a voice in my head telling me I was disfigured for life.
What were professional criminals doing here in the gentle slopes of the Sussex Downs? I asked myself, as I gripped my dagger and tried to ignore the searing pain in my cheek. I should be having tea and trying to winkle secrets of Barker’s past from our beautiful hostess. Why had the Mafia chosen now to leave their sun-bleached isle for our northern clime, and how did Barker and I find ourselves the only ones to oppose them? Was it really only a few days since this had all begun?
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HERE IS NOTHING AN EAST-ENDER LIKES TO DO
more than gawk; and if the sight is gruesome, so much the better. The Thames constables, with the peculiar water-spider insignias on their uniforms, kept the crowd pressed behind a barrier; but still every man, woman, and child was afforded a clear view of the late Mr. and Mrs. Serafini being extracted from the barrel. One of the constables even set up a tripod and camera to record the victims in situ, but whether it was for official purposes or a personal souvenir I could not say.
Theoretically, we were gawking with the rest of them, though we had been given a closer view. So far our agency was without a client, though I was certain Victor Gigliotti would be interested in hiring our services. However, if I knew Cyrus Barker, he would refuse such an offer, since the Camorran would undoubtedly set his men loose upon Serafini’s killer like a pack of hounds. Beneath his rough-hewn exterior, the Guv’s scruples grind exceedingly fine.
We departed ahead of the barrow, bound for the Poplar
Morgue, a ten-minute walk. Barker knew the way better than I, for I had not yet developed the mastery of London streets that he has, being content with a skeletal knowledge of the main thoroughfares and the use of the odd map. Barker’s method involved tacking an ordnance map to the wall at knee level, sitting on the floor cross-legged, memorizing street by street for an hour, as if the map were a Tibetan mandala. The position gives me leg cramp.