Will Thomas: The Black Hand

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Will Thomas The Black Hand
  • Название:
    The Black Hand
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  • Жанр:
    Исторический детектив / на английском языке
  • Язык:
    Английский
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Will Thomas


The Black Hand

I’m not interested in the status quo;

I want to overthrow it.

— Machiavelli

Prologue

I 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 her 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?

1

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.

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