Will Thomas: The Limehouse Text

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Will Thomas The Limehouse Text
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    The Limehouse Text
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The Limehouse Text

Will Thomas

East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.

- Rudyard Kipling


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 English 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 feeling 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 like 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 life or, rather, both our lives.

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 little. 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 slits 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 life 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.


"Found summat,” Inspector Nevil Bainbridge said, betraying his Yorkshire roots as he fished among the pockets of his tunic. It was a Wednesday morning, the fourth of February, 1885. I didn’t know the man from Adam and was assessing him primarily because it was one of my duties but also because I was curious. I’d only met one Scotland Yard inspector before, Terence Poole, who always wore civilian dress, whereas this fellow wore a long jacket with frog fasteners and a peaked cap. I had no way of knowing whether or not his uniform was standard issue, but the truncheon inserted into the inspector’s wide belt certainly was not. It was as thick as my arm, hung to his knee, and displayed scratches and dents I’d wager it didn’t get from being drummed along fence posts. “Here it is.”

He handed over a small wafer of faded and water stained pasteboard to my employer, private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker, who regarded it solemnly. It appeared to be a simple pawn ticket. Since I’d entered Barker’s employ almost a year earlier in March 1884, I had never once heard the name of Inspector Bainbridge. How long had the Guv known this fellow?

“Where did you find this?” Barker demanded in his deep rumble. His black brows slipped behind the round lenses of dark glass he always wore. He was frowning. Both men were, in fact. Whatever matter of business had brought them together was being taken very seriously.

“It were in the sleeve, tucked under like, and slipped into a small rip,” the inspector answered. “I could see why we missed it. I was about to send the effects on to his family. I allus go over old cases after first o’ year, hoping to nail some down, and this cold spell has been keeping me in station more than reg’lar.”

“How remarkable that it survived,” Barker said. “Did you attempt to exchange it?”

“Course I did,” the inspector answered, stroking his long beard. “Pawnbroker wouldn’t let me see it, would he? Said I wasn’t the next o’ kin, and the law says he didn’t have to let me see whatever it was until I produced one. Bloody Dutchmen. They have no business opening respectable shops in London, not that it were ’zactly respectable, mind. It’s in Limehouse. A more draggle-tailed aspect you’d have to work bloody hard to find.”

Barker stared intently at the card, as if willing it to give up its secrets. Finally, he put both hands on his desk blotter and pushed himself out of his chair.

“This is a mystery,” he said, “and I cannot abide mysteries. Quong had no reason to pawn anything. I always saw that his needs were adequately met. Come, Thomas.”

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