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LONDON, ST. KATHERINE'S DOCK, DECEMBER 1893
In the damp, stinking cargo hold of the Queen's Gambit, a shirtless and bleeding man stood shackled to the rough wood of the center post.
A larger, barrel-chested man stood just behind and to the side, holding a heavy, brine-encrusted rope cargo net, gripping it with both hands as though it were a sledgehammer, eyes gleaming, eager to swing it again, as he had done half a dozen times already, and with an intent to improve his technique and get his full weight into it on the next try.
A smaller man sat at a narrow rectangular table near the door, perusing a penny publication he had stolen just a few moments earlier on the street, and a fourth man—the one the others knew as Redgil, taller than any of the other three men in the cargo hold and clearly in charge at this moment—stood directly in front of the shackled man and wondered just how much more it would take to break him.
Would he die before he revealed what they wanted to know? In Redgil's experience, and he had some in this area, the man was close to it now. That wouldn't be good. It wouldn't do to kill him right out and be done with it. Not just yet.
If the shackled man was just who he claimed to be—a great crime organizer extraordinaire, a deviser of illicit schemes, a money launderer with international resources at his disposal—then everything was fine. Redgil thought himself a great crime organizer extraordinaire in his own right, and he did not fancy competition. He could simply kill the shackled man and keep his share of their collaborative criminal enterprise, and not worry about it any further.
But Redgil had begun to suspect that there might be something else going on with the shackled man. It was just a rumor, but he needed to be sure. There was much at stake.
Redgil had in his possession a huge sum—nearly fifty thousand pounds—in counterfeit bills. The bills were too large and too many to just pass them off in small shops and street transactions—they required laundering on a larger scale, and Redgil had contacted this man, an American who had surfaced in London just recently, to find a way to get it done.
The current plan was straightforward: The shackled American claimed to have an arrangement for purchasing a cargo of whiskey, which was illegally imported from Ireland and sitting at St. Katherine's Dock, waiting for departure to the United States. The owner of the cargo, the American said, was anxious to do a deal and avoid import/export fees. He was not likely to look at things too closely. It was a fine scenario for turning Redgil's fake pounds into legitimate currency.
So the exchange would be tomorrow night. Redgil was to bring the money to the dock where the Queen's Gambit was berthed. He would deliver to the American the fifty thousand in counterfeit bills, in exchange for the cargo and a signed bill of lading. Redgil would then sail with the cargo to America, sell it for a handsome profit over the wholesale price he had paid with his counterfeit bills, and then he would return to London to expand his criminal operations in all the ways his imagination could conceive.
But late last night Redgil had been drinking at the bar in the Whistler pub with an acquaintance released just that day from Newgate Prison. The acquaintance complained that he had gotten nicked when the police unaccountably showed up at exactly the wrong time, late at night, when he was about to burglarize an antiquities shop on Bond Street.
The Bond Street burglary was an operation that had been planned by the shackled American. And this was not the first of these plans-gone-unaccountably-wrong Redgil had heard of.
It was true that the American had had a few successes since arriving in town a few months ago—arranging some successful burglaries here and there, with no one at home just as he said no one would be, and with loot that was pretty much as expected. Some lucrative and uneventful transactions in fencing stolen goods.
But recently Redgil had begun to hear of major operations where things would get cocked up. It was nothing conclusive, but it was certainly enough for him to do something that he enjoyed doing anyway—string someone up to a post and torture him until he expired.
So Redgil ordered the bulky man to swing the heavy rope again.
The American shackled to the wooden post raised his head up halfway, looked back at the London Limehouse scum that had bested him, and couldn't believe he had allowed it to happen.
Then he looked across at the table near the door.
On the table were a kerosene lamp, a bottle of whiskey sampled from the cargo (the second of the evening, and already mostly consumed), and two paper items. One of these paper items was a bill of lading, and the other was the December 1893 issue of The Strand Magazine.
The bill of lading had been in the American's coat pocket when he was ambushed by the other three men in the dark alley behind the Whistler pub.
The Strand Magazine was a monthly periodical that featured mainly detective stories, and this brand-new issue of it had been brought into the pub by the skinny man, who had lifted it earlier from a street vendor, just shortly before all four of these men were scheduled to rendezvous in the pub.
The American stared across at those two paper items. One of them was the cause of his current troubles, and the other, he had begun to hope, might just possibly be his salvation.
The Strand was running a serial of stories about a particular detective. It had been all the rage in London for more than a year. The American had recently begun reading them himself—and not idly, but with a purpose. He had read all the ones that preceded this current issue, and he had even managed a glance at the first few pages of this one, earlier in the pub. He hoped this one was like the others. If it was, perhaps he still had a small chance of emerging from the cargo hold alive.
"Tell us! Who are you? What's your real name? Who are you working for?"
Redgil backhand-slapped the American across the face.
The American did not regard the slap as especially painful. The lashes on his bare back from the heavy cargo net were a different matter. That pain did not diminish; the flesh on his back got more swollen and the nerves more exposed with each fresh flailing of the net. The pain from those and the hyperventilated breathing they induced were beginning to make him dizzy.
The problem with the slaps was that they jarred his head, made his brain rattle inside his skull, and he needed to be able to think. Like any other Pinkerton undercover man, he knew that if you lose your wits even for an instant, you're done.
He knew he was probably done anyway; he'd been found out. He'd been overconfident. He knew it; he knew now that he should never have taken this risk.
He'd gotten so good at manipulating gangsters in New York, he'd actually allowed himself to believe that going on loan to Scotland Yard would just be a lark. After all, they didn't even have any "real" gangs here, at least not yet. He had come across on assignment to help them keep it that way.
Within days of his first briefing at the Yard, the American had put the word out to the London underworld that he had connections none of the locals could match. Did you need to launder your hundred thousand pounds of counterfeit bills in a hurry? Did you need better rates for fencing your jewelry heist? Did you need to coordinate operations for any of the above? Then the American was your man. Especially because he was not merely an American. He was a New Yorker. The reputation of the budding gangs in New York was known worldwide. Why settle for a fledgling English gangster when you could work with the real thing?
He had started slowly, helping a few nonviolent, small-time felons to succeed in their enterprises—getting a pickpocket out of jail here, setting up a burglary there (after making sure that there would be no one at home to get hurt and that the loot would be minimal).
And then, after a string of those successes, with his reputation established, he had begun to set up the bigger fish, the real targets of the operation.
This had to be done carefully. The whole point was to nick the top-level felons or, at minimum, keep them off balance. But both the American and his colleague at Scotland Yard Special Branch knew that they could push such an operation just so far.
And that was even before the American knew he had a family to think about.
His young wife had come across the pond with him. He wished to God now that he had persuaded her to remain in New York. He had promised her this would be his last field operation, the crown of his career. There would be no more after this, he had said, he would return home and take a desk job, and then they would start a family. He had wanted her to stay safely behind until then.
But she wouldn't hear of it. She had come with him.
And then she had become pregnant.
And all at once, everything had become crystal clear for the American agent.
He'd been taking too many risks. He would stop. He had been overconfident. He would not be so in the future.
But that epiphany had come too late. He was stuck now in this cargo hold with three mean men, each of them stupid in the way mean-spirited bottom-feeding criminals are stupid, but one of them—the one the others called Redgil—was just slightly smarter than the others, smarter in the way that people who make it their business to cheat and steal and hurt get smart in doing so. Just the sort of lout that the American had come across the pond to nab.
But instead of the American and the inspector grilling the felon at Scotland Yard, it was Redgil doing the questioning in this hellhole.
"Tell us! How did they know?"
Another backhand slap. Just an insult, nothing more.
The American agent wished that someone would untie his hands just for an instant, so that he could return a proper response—but he knew it wouldn't happen. Not unless he could get them off their game.
He looked across again at The Strand Magazine on the table. He tried to remember everything he had read in it.
The man with the net got ready to flail it again.
It was now or never. The American agent let his head fall again, this time deliberately. He would play it for all it was worth.
He muttered under his breath. If you want someone to believe a lie, you need to make them work to hear it.
"It was that bloody Holmes," he said.
"What? What did you say?"
Redgil slammed the American's head back against the post.
And the American began to laugh.
"Fools. You bloody, stupid fools. Do you really think I would sabotage my own operations? Think! Why would I do that?"
Redgil seemed puzzled by the laugh. He responded, with natural and justifiable suspicion: "You could be a copper. You could be working for the Yard."
"Balls. If I were working for the Yard, you'd have all been in the nick a month ago. And so would everyone else in the Whistler pub. Use your head, man. This was Holmes's doing."
"I don't know who you're talking about."
The American channeled all of his pain into a laugh that was as loud and arrogant as he could make it.
"He thwarts me at every turn! It had to be him! There's no one at Scotland Yard with a mind like that!"
The skinny man—the one who had brought the magazine into the pub, the only one of the three who could read, the American had guessed—jumped up from the table and ran over eagerly, within a foot of the agent's face.
"You don't mean…" He paused, eyes wide, and he spoke in a whisper: "Sherlock … Holmes?"
"What do you think?" said the American. He said this with a sneer, his voice dripping with contempt. Presentation wasn't everything, but it was most of it.
"What are you talking about?" said Redgil to the skinny man. Then he looked over at the brute with the fishing net, who shrugged.
But the skinny one nodded affirmatively. "Sherlock Holmes," he said, fully out loud this time. "I've heard of him. Sherlock Holmes! Holy Mother of God, if Sherlock Holmes is on to us, we're done!"
The man tied to the post did not move his head. He did not move his eyes. He did not even breathe. If you want the fish to take the bait, you must stay completely still.
"An old wives' tale," said Redgil. "There is no Sherlock Holmes."
"No, no," said the skinny one. "I read about him. He's real." The skinny man ran to the table, grabbed the copy of The Strand Magazine, and brought it back like a puppy to the leader. "They can't print it if it isn't true."
Redgil took the magazine, opened it, stared into it—looked stumped for a moment—and then he tossed it contemptuously back at the skinny man.
It hit the damp wood floor with a nasty-sounding splat; the skinny man ran quickly to pick it up, and did his best to wipe the muck off.
Redgil never liked it if someone else might be right. Especially he didn't like being corrected in front of an audience, and the shackled American, at the moment, constituted an audience.
"No, no," said Redgil, rather grandly after a moment's thought, but not with genuine confidence. "Just because it's printed doesn't mean it's true. It has to be what they call … what they call … published … published, that's it … in a newspaper. Then it's true. But this is not a newspaper. This—this is just something where some git made stuff up!"
The American agent fought through his pain and focused. This was the final hurdle in any scam. The moment when the mark's basic common sense would try to take hold of him and let him realize exactly what was going on, and if that happened, then his basic instincts would take hold as well, and if that happened, with scum like these, then it was all over. The game was up, whether the mark had figured out all the details or not. He would be done with it and just cut your throat.
The American agent and Inspector Standifer at the Yard had always known that at some point the very success of the sting operations would begin to make the American's cover identity suspect. Someone would want to know, as the lead bunghole here wanted to know, right now, why plots kept getting foiled.
The agent couldn't keep blaming it on bad luck. He couldn't keep saying that a couple of bobbies just happened to be walking by when the heist went down, or that one of the conspirators must have talked in his sleep to his paramour, or gotten drunk and let something slip in the pub. He needed an explanation that was all-encompassing. He needed a scapegoat. He and the inspector had tried to come up with one.
And then, a few weeks back, he had been at Scotland Yard when a letter arrived. A letter that the Royal Mail had seen fit to carry directly into the inspector's office.
It was a confession letter.
That, by itself, did not make it a rarity at Scotland Yard, or even unusually important.
What made it important was that it had not been addressed to Scotland Yard. It had been addressed to someone else.
And it wasn't the first. There had been others—confessions to crimes, tips about crimes, questions about crimes—all addressed to Sherlock Holmes, and being delivered to Scotland Yard.
To the Special Branch inspector, such letters had been just a curiosity, and sometimes an actual annoyance.
But the American agent saw an opportunity.
Like everyone else in the English-speaking world, he knew the name Sherlock Holmes quite well now. And he had seen how eagerly the crowds would gather around the street vendor every month for each new issue of The Strand.
But more important, he had now begun to hear the name Sherlock Holmes muttered in fearful whispers in the Docklands' dirtiest, toughest pubs, by men with souls as hard and mean as lobster claws, huddled around pub tables like children around a campfire and scaring themselves with tales of the bogeyman.
This, thought the American at the time, could be useful.
And so he had invested sixpence and picked up last month's issue of The Strand and read "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty."
And then he had backtracked and read all the others, all the way back to A Study in Scarlet. He wanted to know who this fictional detective was, and why even streetwise felons seemed to want to believe him to be real.
The American thought he understood.
Bleeding and barely conscious, he was now going to put it to the test. He had no other choice.
His tormentors in the cargo hold were practically begging for some reason to believe that the failures of their vicious, shortsighted schemes were due to some other cause than their own personal faults. He would give them one.
He was ready. He looked up at his interrogator.
"What are you smiling at?" said Redgil, and he gestured for the brute to deliver another lash from the cargo net.
"Oh, yes, you are the smart one," said the American quickly. And then the lash of the whip came anyway. He held back his scream, he did his best to control the frantic, involuntary hyperventilation that the pain induced, and then, after several agonizing, dizzying seconds, he maintained consciousness. He looked up.
"Yes, the smart one," he said, forcing the smile again. "I knew that about you. You're right. That rag right there is just The Strand Magazine. Not a newspaper, where everything is God's own truth. No sir, not a bit of it. It's just a magazine full of halfpenny stories. Stories that everyone repeats. In every pub. On every dock. That every whore and pickpocket and stockbroker in London knows about. But all the same, it's just stories. You are absolutely correct."
"Right, then," said Redgil, buying the flattery, but suspicious of where it was going.
"Except it isn't just."
The thick man with the net whip raised it again, eyes gleaming, and looked at Redgil.
But Redgil hesitated. Too many of these and the shackled man would actually just die; he would go into shock or bleed out; he didn't look to be far from it now. And he still hadn't revealed what he knew.
Redgil raised his hand to stay the whip.
"What do you mean?" he said.
The American took a moment to spit blood out onto the floor. Then he looked up, calmly and contemptuously, at Redgil.
"The stories in this magazine are not something some writer made up. They are biography. You know what biography is, don't you? It's not fiction; it's fact. The stories are a biographical account, written by an educated man, a doctor, this John Watson. He's writing biography—actual reminiscences—about this detective he knows. If you'd been reading them all along, you'd know that. The very first one said right up front ‘a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D.' It's fact. And he's not just a doctor; he's an army doctor. You know they wouldn't have let him write things that aren't true."
Redgil was suspicious, but he looked again at the skinny man. The skinny man nodded emphatically. "That's right," he said. "I read that in the very first one. A reminiscence. By John H. Watson, M.D. Late of the Army Medical Department."
"So there you are," said the American agent to Redgil. "Read it for yourself, if you like." Then he added, "You can read, can't you?"
That remark brought another slap across the jaw. The American knew that would happen; he was already pretty damn sure Redgil couldn't actually read. The slap confirmed it, and it was worth the inconvenience—because now he had made the leader of the little group defensive about what he didn't know, and anxious to prove he knew more than he did.
"Sure I can," said Redgil. "Of course I've read them. I've read all of them."
"Then think about it. Who could possibly make up such things? Figuring out the meaning of the five orange pips? Deciphering the note written by the Reigate squires? Do you really think some git of a writer in a penny magazine could make those things up?"
Redgil looked back at the skinny man, and the skinny man, proud of his own knowledge, shook his head emphatically.
"All right," said Redgil slowly, turning back to the shackled American. "I suppose they're not made up." And then, to prove that he figured this out of his own accord, he added: "This Mr. Watson being an army doctor and such."
"Of course not," said the American. "Only a true genius could decipher those clues. And only the greatest of minds could deduce and unravel the plots I have laid. Only a man with an intellect that rivals my own. But great minds have great egos, and the great weakness of Mr. Sherlock Holmes is that he cannot bear to work in anonymity. And so he allows his feats to be published. And that's what you see in The Strand Magazine—biographical accounts of his actual doings, with only an occasional detail altered here and there."
"All right," said Redgil, still pondering that possibility. "But just because Sherlock Holmes is real—that doesn't necessarily mean he's the reason your plans didn't work, now does it?"
"Hell, he's thwarted more of my plans than I can count!" said the American. "I set up a burglary just last year that would have shook the world if Sherlock Holmes hadn't figured it out."
"Prove it," snarled Redgil.
"Look it up yourself," said the American. "It's in last month's issue."
The skinny man came running over.
"You don't mean the Naval Treaty?" he said, quite eagerly.
"Bloody hell yes, except it wasn't just a Naval Treaty. They change things you know, even in biographies, when they write them up. But I was behind it, it was no simple burglary, and it would have worked, too, if Holmes hadn't sussed out where the document was."
"So all the crimes that Sherlock Holmes solved in these … these biography things that Dr. Watson writes," said Redgil, "they were all schemes of yours?"
The American hesitated. He wasn't claiming that at all; it could be too easily disproved. But he couldn't be seen to be backing down. He needed a denial that didn't sound like one.
"All?" he said. "Well, that's a mighty big word. Your crimes of passion, someone's long-lost love surfacing in a quest for vengeance, snakes crawling down ropes—those had nothing to do with me, although I'll admit that snake thing might have come in handy. Mine were just the ones where a lot of money was at stake, and even one or two of those accounts had nothing to do with me. That Red-headed League thing?"
The skinny man nodded enthusiastically. Clearly, he had read them all.
"Not mine," said the American. "Not my style. If I'd been starting a Red-headed League, it'd have been only women could join, if you take my meaning. But the important point here is, the few failures I have had, and there have been very few, have all been due to Holmes."
"So you say," said the leader, rubbing his chin. "So you say." He looked over at the magazine on the table. "But I'll wager that if we take a look in the one that came out today, whatever the Sherlock Holmes story is—"
"Biography," said the American.
"Whatever the hell it is, it will have nothing to do with you."
"Fair enough," said the American. "I'll wager a quid."
"No," sneered the leader. "You're wagering your life."
"Fine," said the American. "Just bring it over here. I can help you with the long words if you want."
The skinny man eagerly ran forward toward the American agent, the magazine in hand.
"Stay back!" commanded Redgil, before the skinny man could get too close. "Don't let him see what's in it."
The American shrugged, though it hurt to do so. "Well, we can't settle the bet if you won't open it up."
"You read it," said Redgil to the skinny man. "Read it aloud."
The skinny man opened the magazine. He was quite eager about it, but he wasn't a fast reader, and it took almost a full agonizing minute for him just to locate the story in the magazine.
"I found it!"
"Well, read the bloody thing!" commanded Redgil.
The skinny man began to read aloud: "‘The Final Problem,'" he announced.
"What's that mean?" said Redgil.
"That's the title," said the skinny man. "‘The Final Problem.'"
"Well, get on with it," said Redgil.
The skinny man began to read.
"‘It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which—"
"Wait," said Redgil now. "Just how long is this going to take?"
The skinny man shrugged. "I read the last one in just two days," he said, with some pride.
Redgil shook his head. "Take your damn magazine over there," he said, pointing at the little table. "When you've figured out what it's about, assuming it happens before the sun comes up, then give us the short version."
The skinny man did as he was told, and went to the table, his eyes fixed on the page of the magazine even as he walked.
Meantime, Redgil picked up the bill of lading, brought it over to the American, and stuck it in front of his face.
"Sign this. Make it over to bearer, so I can present it to the ship's captain and take possession."
The American shook his head. "That's not our deal. I'll sign it over when you bring the money to the dock and I get my twenty-five percent."
"Of course you'll get your cut. Why wouldn't you? You will. I promise. You have my word. As a gentleman."
The American just snorted defiantly.
Redgil nodded to the brute, and the rope came down on the American's back again.
The pain ran in shivers down his back, into his legs, and then back up again to his head, nearly causing him to pass out. He fought to stay conscious. He raised his head and looked directly at Redgil.
"You are making a very serious mistake," said the American. "I am not alone. Do you think I work with no one but you, that I have no confederates? I have schemes in place everywhere in this city. You know that. I don't take credit by name, but it's me that makes it happen. You know and I know that you cannot cheat me and leave me alive. But my operatives are everywhere, and if you kill me, I will be avenged."
Redgil just sneered when the American said those things. But the skinny man—still slowly working his way through "The Final Problem" in The Strand—looked up now when he heard the threat. He looked back down at the text he was reading—then across at the American—and then at the text again.
Then he got up and came over, the opened magazine in his hand. He stared at the American.
"What is your real name?"
The American looked up. The skinny man's face had a look not just of suspicion but also something very much like awe—as though he were wondering whether he should bow down in front of the American before it was too late.
Once more the skinny man looked at the text he had been reading, and then up at the American and then back at the text again.
Page two, thought the American. He's reached page two. It was just far enough.
"If you're reading that," said the American, nodding toward the copy of The Strand, with all the quiet menace he could muster, "you know damn well know what my name is."
The skinny man's eyes grew wide. He stepped back from the American as though the man was a bonfire that had gotten too big. He turned toward Redgil.
"What now?" said Redgil.
The skinny man displayed the magazine in front of Redgil, and jabbed his finger at the relevant page.
"What are you talking about?"
"He is Professor Moriarty! The Napoléon of crime! It says so, right here!" The skinny man read aloud from the magazine, pointing at portions of the text and displaying them in front of Redgil's face, to Redgil's great annoyance.
"‘He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web.… He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. Is there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to rifled, a man to be removed—the word is passed to the Professor, the matter is organized and carried out.'"
Redgil, growing more impatient by the second, ripped the journal out of the skinny man's hands. He shoved it in front of the American's face:
"Well?" he demanded. "Out with it. Is this you, then?"
With an intense effort of will, the American agent got his breathing completely under control. He composed his face completely. He even stopped sweating. He looked at Redgil directly and calmly and then smiled a very cold, minimal smile and said:
"You may hope that it is not. Your hope is in vain."
"Oh, bloody hell," said the skinny man. "We are done, we are done. His agents will do for us all!"
"Shut the bloody hell up!" shouted Redgil. "I need to think."
To make that process easier, apparently, he turned away and pushed on his own forehead with the palms of his hands as if to force a thought. He stroked a reddish birthmark that ran parallel with his jaw on his right cheek. Then he turned back and stared for a long moment at the American.
And then he motioned the other two men in the room—that is, everyone who was not shackled to the post—into the far corner. He spoke in a whisper, almost softly enough that the shackled man couldn't hear.
"Maybe he is Moriarty, and maybe he ain't. But we can't cut him loose, either way. We've already gone too bloody far. But no one has to know it was us that did it. First we get him to sign the cargo over to us, and then we throw his body in front of a bloody train or something."
The man with the rope grunted. The skinny man nodded eagerly.
Then they all three came back to the shackled man.
Redgil thrust the bill of lading at him.
"I don't give a damn farthing who you really are," said Redgil. "You sign this! Make it over to bearer, so that I can present it to the ship's captain and take possession."
The American glared up at Redgil, and said:
"I need a writing surface."
Redgil looked puzzled for a moment.
"Surely you don't expect me to sign in thin air?" said the American, with a nod toward the little wooden table.
Redgil considered it.
"Well, we sure as hell ain't cutting you loose," he said. Then he turned to the skinny man. "Bring that table over here."
The skinny man picked up the kerosene lamp and handed it to the man with the rope, and then cleared the remaining items from the little table. Then the skinny man brought the table over and set it down next to Redgil and the American.
"I can't bend down that far," said the American, standing up straight, still shackled to the post. "Little problem with my back."
The skinny man ran back and got the little three-legged stool that went with the table. He set it down in position for the American.
"May I?" said the American to Redgil, in a voice dripping with sarcasm.
Redgil growled something unintelligible.
The American slid down, both hands still tied to the post, and sat on the little stool. He positioned himself at the table as if for afternoon tea, and looked up at Redgil.
"If you want me to sign, I think you'll need to untie me. One hand, at least."
Redgil looked at the bloody, battered wreck of a man who claimed to be Moriarty, and decided he could take just that much of a chance. He motioned to the man with the rope to cut one arm loose.
The American flexed his fingers and wrist, as if to get the circulation running again.
Then the skinny man dipped the pen into the inkwell and held it in front of the American's face. A black drop of ink fell from the metal pen nib onto the table, where a small pool of the American's blood was already beginning to soak into the wood.
The American took the pen and, with as steady a hand as he could manage, he began to sign an endorsement on the bill of lading.
"There's a good lad," said Redgil.
The American had one hand free, the hand holding the pen. And time was up.
He signed. But he did not make the endorsement to bearer, as Redgil demanded. He made it to someone else. Come hell or high water, and one of those was surely about to come, he was going to maintain his newly invented cover story. If it didn't save his life, it might save someone else's.
Now, with his free hand holding the pen, the American used his shackled hand to push the signed bill of lading across the table to Redgil. And then the American allowed his head to drop, as though finally succumbing to unconsciousness.
Redgil sneered at the American, picked up the document, and turned away.
In the three months that he had been working with Redgil's team, the American agent had never allowed any of them to see him do anything more physically impressive than launch a chewed wad of tobacco into the spittoon from a distance of four feet. No bar fights—he avoided them. No climbing along second-story windowsills to complete a burglary—he left that to the skinny man. No pickup games of cricket in the street, though he had dearly wanted to, because he'd played damn good stickball growing up in Hell's Kitchen.
With his shirt off, they might have picked up a hint that he was something other than just a planner of crimes. But if there was one characteristic of this lot that was stronger than their suspicion, it was their arrogance. And that was only compounded by the fact that they thought he was now about two breaths away from death's door.
Of course, at this point, that was pretty much his own assessment as well.
All the more reason he had nothing to lose.
The small table—no more than three feet by two—was in front of him; he was seated on the little three-legged stool they had brought over at his insistence.
Two feet away, directly across the table from the American, Redgil was unable to read the bill of lading, and so, as the American had expected, he was turning to his left, to show the signature to the skinny man.
At the other side of the table was the bulky man, who had left his original position behind the post. That was lucky. He still had the cargo net in his hands.
The American's left arm was still shackled to the post. Only his right hand was free, and he could only do damage within a radius of about six feet. He twirled the pen in his hand and waited.
"Bloody hell," cried the skinny man, reading the bill of lading in his hand. "He signed it over to Moriarty! He endorsed it to himself!"
The skinny man and Redgil both came back to the table, and Redgil leaned in angrily toward the American, intending to grab him by the throat.
The agent thrust forward with the pen.
Redgil was the most dangerous of the three men, and the American knew he had to kill him at the outset. He was aiming to put the pen not just into Redgil's right eye, but through it. But in the American's woozy state he missed—not by much, but for his target it was the difference between life and death.
Or at least the difference between life with partial blindness as opposed to death—the thrust was still pretty damned close. Redgil screamed in pain and rage, blood streaming from just below his right eye, and his hands went to his face.
The skinny man stepped back, but not quickly enough. The American stood, grabbed the stool by one of its three legs, and swung it hard into the skinny man's jaw.
Now the American felt the slashing sting of the rope net, and not just on his already-flayed back, but on his face and arms as well. This meant the bulky man had done what the American needed him to do—stayed in close to swing the net.
Before the bulky man could recover from his forward motion in swinging the net, the American pivoted to his left, grabbed the bulky man by the hair on top of his head, and using the man's own weight slammed his head down into the table.
But now where was Redgil? He was no longer in the American's field of vision, which meant he must have circled behind, where he could attack with his knife from the protection of the post to which the American was shackled. That was a damned shame. The American knew exactly what Redgil would do now, and he tried to turn to prevent it.
But too late.
Copyright © 2014 by Michael Robertson