12 March, 1916 – Journal of Pemberton Carmichael – A momentary silence had fallen between them as the motor cab made its way along the narrow, snow-covered avenue. I knew beneath the hoary frost lay cobblestones. From my Barbican flat, along darken side streets through Spitalfields to Whitechapell, toward Ratcliff, we threaded our way past East London brick houses for the Limehouse docks. For several long moments now we had settled back into the chill of the interior, our breaths still intermittently steamy huffs as the dim city lights flickered though the window glass of the motor cab. Rohmer peered out his window, intently, as if reading the signage of each passing shopfront or advertisements of the hoardings above.
The diver, middle-aged and bearing the shoulders and thick hands of a pugilist, had not spoken since we had entered into the cab. Upon the forefinger to the brim of his newsboy cap, Rohmer had given him the address. I immediately drew the impression, from the tip of cap and accompanying nod, they knew one other, and having been retained, was Rohmer’s driver for the night.
I had been quite surprised upon opening the door of my flat to see Rohmer – dapper in eveningwear, as if he had but stepped from a dinner party – having had the distinct impression from our earlier conversation, he had dismissed it as so much wild speculation and imaginative conjecture – especially when I had revealed I had begun work upon a novel. As yet untitled: no more than a collection of notes, a few brief sketches of scenes and impressions for characters. Pressed for particulars, I had confirmed that the whole of my supposition of a nefarious femme fatale had raised the curtain for the necessity of the long form rather than merely an article to be freelanced along Fleet Street: –
“Well, old man, not to snuff out a candle of inspiration, I would suggest care. The subject nowadays can be a bit risqué. A Theda Bara, A Fool There Was, Vampire, doesn’t see its way past the British Board of Film.” He tipped his coffee cup to me.
“We’re talking far more Feval than Kipling.” I explained, dropping the match with which I had just lit my cigarette into the empty fourth cup of coffee.
“Ah, Marguerite Sadoulas; The stunningly beautiful and obscure actress, with Machiavellian ruthlessness. Anyone we know?”
Though the cheerful reception was genial, I could not help feeling perhaps there was more than mere commercial reservations – pointing out how Feval, brilliant as he was, was still an acquired taste; and that really, Milady de Winter aside, a female Napoleon of Crime upon some international scale? Of course to do it justice, if she’s your reason d’etre — besides the thriller element there needs be the salacious sordidness of the occident seduced by the oriental. Which might need care, for to use Sal as inspiration, one could find themselves up against the subscription libraries and the censure of W. H. Smith. Not at all good for sales. Perhaps less joss-sticks and opium pipes, silken robes and long lacquered nails. More West End than East as if our Florence had flowered in the theatre and caravanserai of musical halls rather than the shade of the strangeness of a dockside opium den. Which was far more revelatory in his estimation: abandon all hope of intentions of yellow men, white girls, and dope. Limehouse was his, the domain from which his sinister doctor’ arose. Authors are ever a jealous, egocentric coterie for every lifted brandy in salute. Still—he had seemed genuinely enthusiastic and requested a read of the manuscript when Pemberton had it in some form he felt presentable.
And so it was a surprise to find him there at the door with a jovial, “Care to accompany me to The Coca Rooms?”
Pemberton swallowed whole of the peg of whiskey in the glass in hand and reached for hat and coat and took up his cane, not pausing to extinguish the light. Upon the heavy-footed descent down the stairs to the awaiting motorcar, I enquired as to why my good fortune to have him at a quarter-to-seven, to which he seeking new sins – a reference ever to Doyle. “If you’re going to do your research, Pemberton, you need best vacate the comfort of your arm chair and seek the pestiferous night of West India Dock. ”
And the address given was in Limehouse. Was our excursion Rohmer’s approval of yet another author transcribing the pleasures and pains of the weird and arcane secrets and spectacle of those celestial streets? In the chill silence, of which neither us were uncomfortable, we settled back into the darkness of the backseat of the cab. In some regard, it all seemed much like a scene from Rohmer. His Nayland Smith in quiet, reflective thought, while I, his Petrie, sat in keen anticipation.
London Wall to Commercial Road, beneath the glow of the streetlamps, the beams of our motorcar lighting the way, we soon entered the incomprehensible profusion the English, Hindustani, Japanese, Malay and Chinese, shopfronts, and as we did so it would appear they had broken Rohmer’s preoccupation: –“By the way, they have a name for your chemist.”
“The kitchen apothecary.” He turned to me. “Jeremy Twitchell. A rather brilliant fellow actually. Graduate of Oxford. Member of the Chemical Society. Was among the head chemists of one the major London firms – until he suddenly dropped in one morning with his resignation. There was talk of his having gone into government service – but none of my sources can determine precisely where. As for K Division: Inspector Clifford relates that whatever the rumours in that regard, in actually, it would appear his been enticed into the shadowland of Limehouse. Runs an apothecary, Twitchell Pharmaceutical Emporium. Or ran, as he’s gone a runner.”
“I wonder just what the devil they were cooking up?” I pondered reflectively as I felt the cab take a sharp turn.
“All a bit queer it seems. One would instantly assume to be something in line with narcotics, what with the lucrative trade and trafficking having been brought about by restrictions enforced by the PPA. But as you said old man, what bit of analysis the Yard’s chemists could do from what evidence they were able to scratch up as to whatever they were to in that kitchen, it would indicate, as you said, some such association with blood science.”
“Mad science is all one could say in the least for Limehouse.”
“Whatever the mysterious pharmacological machinations, you are correct, Pemberton, someone has been rather efficiently working to remove all evidence leading to Brightwaters two-room murder bed and that rat-burrow of a laboratory. Witnesses having succumbed to rather inopportune accidents, sojourns to Cairo, suicide, or found floating in the Thames with their throats slit. And the master chief of this backwater chemical kitchen, this Twitchell, as well as it would seem whatever minuscule evidence that had been taken up has come up missing.”
“From the Yard?”
“It would seem the red brick fortress is not impenetrable.”
“This all is beginning to sound like something your devil doctor would be instigating.”
“Or your nefarious femme fatale.”
“Ah—so we’re not going to the Coca Rooms to merely soak up the gin and atmosphere.” Each of the half-lit abodes in passing now seemed to whisper into the winter night of our passage, take care and make remembrance, to find one’s way back. For those upon the pavement, huddled against the hoary night, seemed to hurry in their knowledge that along these narrow lanes, slinking before us, there was ever menace awaiting for the unwary. “Coming around to my way of thinking, have you?”
“Let’s just say a visit to the Coca Rooms is not at all lacking in interest.” Rohmer’s attention drawn away from the busy front of a fried-fish bar with its windows covered in Scandinavian phrases, “Of course, in the normal course of events one would say a visit to Twitchell Pharmaceutical Emporium should be order, but at the moment, Inspector Clifford has it well shut down for a thorough inspection.”
Seemingly he had begun to shift in the back seat shadows of the motor cab from Arthur Ward, or A. Sarsfield Ward, or Sarsfield Ward, or how many other names he had used, before becoming Sax Rohmer, so as to embody now a version of his character, Neyland Smith—
But this was my story. And the insidious deviltry hidden away amid these low-lit streets were not the machinations craftily directed by the sinister yellow hand of his infamous Oriental mastermind, but rather, by one, I believed, whether Oriental or Occidental, to be far more feminine. Now, of course, whether that hand was in fact Lascar Sal’s, as I had originally conjectured, was now far more open to suggestion – for I had of late begun to suspect perhaps there was somewhere in the background a power greater than she. Who? As yet, I had no clear indication, for they clung well to the shadows of not only Limehouse, but I feared within greater London, and beyond.
“I must say Pemberton, your gambit this morning was quite successful — as you so well designed.” Rohmer continued, “For after our intriguing breakfast, my professional curiosity was rather aroused. What with the limelight and fireworks of Limehouse being the bridge between the ordinary and the outré, which so well know impresses my mind, I felt were there to be in truth some actor manipulating events to rival those of my devil doctor, then who better to ascertain the validity of your speculations. And as it would seem, K Division, still smarting of the gulling they perceive to have engulfed them over the seeming faux whispers engineered in regards to a Mr King, find the suggestion of some such actor, as Inspector Clifford dismissively says of the fabulous invention of my Manchu, may be quite fanciful for the avid readers of illustrated serials; but no longer of mind for his constabulary—the kitchen chemistry being no more than a mere coincidence of an investigation of the premises. And so, I sought to avail myself of other sources. Having, as you know taken up off of Three Colt Street to established bona fides with various elements along those celestial pavements, I made some discreet enquiries. By way of one of them, old Chang Yu – whose store is a marvel; sells lychee fruits, dried chrysanthemum buds, shark’s fin, seaweed, pickled eggs, some of which are said to be twenty years old – from whom I understand an enquiry agent has been sniffing about as well, seemingly upon a most similar scent as you in regards to our rather wicked actress. Thus, we are to meet up with him tonight at our wicked Sal’s”
“An Enquiry agent?”
“Thomas Pulverton.” He nodded as lifted the face of his pocket watch to the light of the streetlamps falling through the window, “In a little less than half-an-hour. We’ve time enough to savour the atmosphere of McLaren’s Coca Rooms.”
The Coca Rooms had once been a modest saloon bar and fan-tan parlour known as The Black Lantern, a dark establishment on a dark street off of Three Colt Street, near to the lapping waters of the Thames. Florence McLaren, known to those in the East End as Lascar Sal – an appellation which was not, as were among similarly entitled Limehouse amazons, earned accordingly by the nationalities of those to whom they were married, in that McLaren had never married – had acquired the Lantern, as well as the building adjacent, a three-story hovel, which she had renovated into the marvel of a three-story house of entertainments. A music hall, public house, Fan-tan parlour, and other various gaming rooms, a brothel, and deep within, darken recesses for smoking opium. A slum tourist’s paradise.
As we threaded our way through the traffic of the narrow lane, Rohmer sat forward and told the driver to stop.
“What is it?” I asked, looking at the congestion of taxis, motorcar and horse carriages, bringing revellers and slum tourists from Kennington and Mayfair, to mix with the Celestials and second-second class habitués, before the Coca Rooms; their tyres, hoofs, and wheels crushing the snow beneath them, as they crowded the narrow lane, in the making of a jumble in a receiving or depositing queue. And then—I saw what had drawn Rohmer’s attention: a sleek black Lanchester Limousine, pulled up in front of the Coca Rooms. From our vantage point, a Unic having just pulled forward, we were afforded the vision of a tall, slender woman, dressed in a black evening dress, with intricate lace about the collar and cuffs, exiting from the rear of the limousine; its driver holding open the door. She wore neither coat nor hat. Her hair, ash blonde and slightly unkempt, seemed only briefly stirred by the chill brisk wind coming in off the Thames. In far too much fiction of late, I have read ‘stunning,’ but there was no other word to describe the vision she presented. The shuffle of those about the front of the Coca Rooms, respectable Londoner’s seeking a Sunday Night’s bemusement and denizens of the docks alike either stepped away or stood in silent homage.
“’It is all too reminiscent.” Rohmer said softly, almost as if the vision of the blonde and placed him in some mesmeric state.
I nodded as we sat seemingly transfixed. Had I not said stunning?
“It is like the night I saw the Chinaman exiting the car, which was the inspiration for Manchu.”
And in that moment, I knew — she was mine. This was my Cleopatra of Crime.
I watched her approaching the entrance to The Coca Room. Her step slow, languid, and yet an ever purposeful one, for she did not take a hesitant step or seemed concerned of the jostle of the others —
“Do you know her?” I asked of Rohmer who shook his head.
“No, but there is something about here is there not — as I said, it is quite like the night I saw him. Something mesmerizingly sinister about her – can you not sense it?” But before I could hazard a response Rohmer had quickly commanded the diver to pull the motorcar over to the side of the narrow, congested street. Coming to a halted just ahead of the limousine, Rohmer’s door was open and he quickly got out and slowly walked along the street to look at her as moved toward the entrance of the Coca Room – whilst I looked to our diver, who shook his head to say Rohmer had taken care of the fare. Cane in hand, stepping past a jovial group of Tommies, I hurried in his purposeful wake. His hat cocked to a rakish angle, Rohmer had sought the limousine’s chauffeur, as the object of our attentions, the ash blonde having already entered into the nightspot. But the driver, holding up his hand, stopped him in mid-sentence and returning to his seat slammed the door.
“He is not to be forthcoming.”’ He told me as I approached. As I gave him a nod and cat a look of severe irritation to the driver, doing his best to ignore us, I happened to take notice over the top of the Lanchester, just off to the side of the entrance, there on a rough wooden crate, sat an elderly Chinaman, in a heavy coat and woollen scarf, smoking at is leisure a long pipe. It was readily apparent we held some interest to him.
Through the ruts of slush, I made my way over tom him, Rohmer following, “I say, that rather stunning lady who just now arrived—,” as I motioned back toward the limousine.
“It would be ever so good to know, Lao. Happen to know who she is?” Rohmer interjected.
To which the Chinaman puffed: – “No see.”
“You see everything for Sal, Lao.” I countered.
“No see. Much crowd.” The smoke of his pipe dispersing as he lifted his heavy-lidded eyes to look up at Rohmer. “Sunday. West End all shuttee up.”
“Ah—then she must be of some remarkable importance to be invisible to your eyes, eh Lao.”
To which the Chinaman replied with a puff.
“Let us hurry Carmichael,” and he pressed a gloved hand to my shoulder as we struck off from Lao of the wooden crate and quickly made progress toward the entrance.
Only, by chance, as we moved closer to the entrance, I happened to glance back as a rather jaunty young man in a worn newsboy cap and a dark navy woollen coat, owing to the fact my attention was caught but the sight of the stripe of his naval trousers.
“Randall. Amazing, you do know your way back.” I overheard the old charlatan of a Chinaman say as he removed ivory stem of his pipe.
Randall. Yes, he looked like a Randall. His hand stuffed deep into his pockets, collar pulled up close, cap just so, the way of his walk –yes, he was definitely a Randall. I took note for the sudden inspiration of a scene.
“Evening Lao. Chilly weather we’ve been ’avin, eh?” The young man replied with a tip of his hat.
The old man peered up as the breeze curls the smoke about his face, "Been a long time.”
The young man gave him an apologetic smile. “Ah, well it’s been a bit busy over at the Admiralty as of late. Bit of a tiff down in France these days. But, I understand I’ve been requested and so,” he holds his arms out to his sides, “here I am.”
The old man pointed the smoking end of the stem of his pipe at him: “She’s expecting you. Best not to keep her waiting. It is good day, for in most things she seems well pleased. Now – go before that pleasure fades.”
The young man gave a mock salute and turned to enter – just as Rohmer stepped impatiently back out of the Coca Room’s entrance, grabbed me by the arm, “Carmichael – are you coming?”
I looked at him and nodded as we quickly entered The Coca Room, which was an odd mix of the aesthetics of a music hall of the West End and the eroticism of the East. Into the smoky atmosphere, within which one was quickly assailed with the scent of several varieties of smoke, cigarette, pipe, and the hint of hashish, one would have expected to have found a crowd mostly of yellow boys and white girls, Malays, Hindoos, South Sea Islanders and the odd East African, entertained by reeds and strings of Oriental music, silk robes and rainbow lanterns, instead the music was some American influenced composition and the at the tables and long dark bar, already packed, there was a heady eclectic mix of habitués, socialite cottiers, slumming couples, and curious wanderers, amid a lots of khaki – Tommies in London on leave. The main room was an open combination musical hall and dinner theatre—precisely what would expect from an actress turned nightspot impresario. Old Lao of the wooden crate had been quite accurate in that as most of the popular nightspots of the Strand and elsewhere, beyond the limelight of the East End, being shuttered – the Coca Room, its reputation having reached far beyond the filth and squalor Limehouse streets into London proper, was in fact the wicked place for a Sunday’s entertainment.
Occupying most of the main room was the large elliptical stage of worn hardwood, supported by an odd combination of iron and brass piping and thick metallic braces, reaching upward, and inset into the rafters of the open-air ceiling. Salvage from derelict shipping it was said. Round electric lamps illuminated the stage upon which a very young girl, who appeared, and knowing Lascar Sal was, perhaps just barely above legality, performing some lively dance in a seductive, scanty sailor’s costume – should lithe, scantily clad young girls take to the seas – which held the rapt attention of those sitting about the stage at their small tables draped in cloths of green and burgundy.
Rohmer grabbed my arm and pulled me aside to make our way through the close set tables, having spied a vacant one which quite fortunately afforded an excellent view, via an advantage across the stage, to the curved staircase leading up to a slight second floor landing – with but a single door. The private office of Lascar Sal. Over the music I was about to say something to Rohmer when I went silent as he, for following his gaze, I watched the ash blonde from the Lanchester ascending the stairs. And ascend is precisely the word, because for all appearances her gliding step seemed more as if she were in fact merely arising up them.
Even as I sat captivated by the languid stride of this mysterious blonde, I happened as well to take notice of the jaunty naval officer, my Randall, having the entered the main room, wandering now, hands in his jacket pockets, as he made his way toward the long, dark bar. What caught my attention was the fact he was apparently well known by some members of the Coca Rooms staff. Kang Foo Ah, whom I knew to be the not only the stage manager, but the public room as well, seemed to immediately recognize him as he stepped over with a warm smile towards him.
“It is most enjoyable to see you again, Randall.” I quite imagined Kang Foo Ah to be saying to him with that his bright smile. “They have not put you out to sea as yet I see.”
To which the young naval officer, returning the hail would have said: – “Good to see you too Kang. They seem to keep finding things for me to do on dry land. And you’ve been keeping the place running smoothly I see. No drop in customers since the war broke out?”
Foo’s smile being was most amiable, until it wasn’t, would continue to give him the amiable one: “Ah, ever so slowly, Randall, ever so slowly they seek to take way the salt and savour. Dora and the war, alas. The Thames Police Court, inspired by the breath of West End commercial spirits, indeed brings now a sterner hand upon the hop-hoad and all the luscious delicacies. Even now the long old feuds pf the tong have gone to shadow. Soon there will seldom be the odour of gin-seng upon the air. Mark my words; soon Opium, and other such essences of the white poppy, will soon be fetching not less than £30 per pound. But—life goes on, as does death, and for those who seek the pleasures of the living, there is always the Coca Rooms. She is expecting you, but presently, she is detained.”
Even as I watched them, I saw, the languid motion of Kang’s hand as he motioned toward the staircase upon which the blonde was ascending.
At the top of the landing, stepping out of the shadows, I saw the figure of someone moving forward to greet the woman.
“Sam Tai Ling,” Rohmer whispered. I nodded for we both well knew Sam Tai Ling – a man well versed in many of the more questionable enterprises that took place in Limehouse. A man who bore the distinction of having once been a member of the Azure Dragon Tong – the distinction being that the only way one was supposed to ever be able to sever an association once made was via death – whereas, Sam Tai Ling’s departure was reputed to have been upon the request of Lascar Sal. Of all the whispers in Limehouse, there was one lacking. However was it possible that a drugged-out actress, reportedly a missing person, just steps lively off the boards and onto the narrow pavements of the India Docks, to not only strong-arm Ling Lee to hand over key and deed to The Black Lantern, but to wrest free Sam Tai Ling from the Azure Dragons.
The crowd’s enjoyment of the music and of the young girl’s performance filled the hall with their revelry as we watched the pair at the head of the stairs. Sam Tai Ling spoke to the woman briefly and then turned to escort her toward the door at the end of the small, narrow landing, where they entered the office.
“I would so love to be a fly upon that wall,” I turned to Rohmer,
But before he could reply a young girl descended upon us to receive our desires, which for me at the moment was a gin and a whiskey for Rohmer. My attention now drawn to the girl on the stage who was indeed quite lithe and the number well past its mid-point, as we settled back, our attention shifting from the entertainment to thoughts of what might be transpiring up the stairs.
“Jukes and this amalgamation of criminal networks,” Rohmer said as he took his cigarette case from his jacket pocket, opened it, and removed one. “Could you take me through it again.”
I began anew explaining how Jukes had more than merely collaborated my suspicions, ones which had previously been held by K Division, as well as Rohmer, that there was indeed some intelligence behind nearly all of the nefarious acts that took place long the docks and infamous streets of Limehouse – the same sinister force which Rohmer had previously sought for naught as the supposed Mr King. As Jukes had looked into not only the petty crimes, which happened everyday within Limehouse, but to those of known organizations such as the Tongs, and then, further in to other organized criminal elements in London, and to his mind a pattern had begun to appear. There was some deference, save for some recent flare up with the Forty Elephants, be it territorial or a healthy respect, perhaps even fear, of someone or some criminal network not only within Limehouse but seemingly within the whole of the metropolis. Lascar Sal – or so I had first thought, but then, Jukes latest paramour had stopped by on Friday to give me a bundle of notes done up all in white ribbon like some crown prosecutor, which she had found, apparently having been secreted by Jukes in one of her hat-boxes. It seems Jukes had gone further and found sources to further collaborate his theories of something far more insidious – an ever growing organization, which had systematically taken vast control over the various criminal organisations within London. Jukes’s notes likened it to a giant web woven by some malevolent spider. A spider spinning a web far grander than anything either of us had previously imagined. His notes indicated he had met with some Russian émigré, an anarchist, from Paris, who had made his way among the Russian community of known unionists and agitators in Whitechapel, who had informed him that the tangled treads of this web led far beyond Limehouse and London. They could be found entangled all across the continent. They could be traced to an insurance fraud in Paris, to diamonds out of Johannesburg having gone missing in Brussels and Amsterdam, a murder for hire syndicate in Berlin, various art thefts in Vienna, the smuggling of Genevese munitions, some priceless esoteric book purloined in Prague, oil and land frauds in Bucharest, and God only knew what in Constantinople. A web built by a Black Widow; the Russian had so called the spider. Which is how Jukes had begun to look not for some Napoleon of Crime devising a campaign upon some nefarious global map but the hand of a woman.
“Lascar Sal’s.” Rohmer mused, above the applause for the concluding flash of faux nautical flesh of the lovely sailor girl upon the stage, “Carmichael, stick a pin in a map and there you will find a crime – but, even as fanciful as I, to in some way pin some criminal global enterprise based upon some musing of an Russian anarchist – who may as well believe in pétroleuses?”
“There are documents, old man, laying out a complex maze of financial and corporate connections.” I told him. “All of which at some time or other have been suspected of having possible criminal associations – unproven of course, as always. The Lively Investment Group, Frost International Imports & Exports, Français Chimique et Métallurgique SA, Kröller-Holst AG, some pharmaceutical concern in Munich, a munitions exporter in Genève, all woven within a maze of accounts in several Swiss banks, to some Great West Pacifica, which Jukes was able to trace back to a Westerman International Investments, whose principle financial holdings are run through the infamous Box Brothers Bank. Jukes’s notes indicates he had a lead to a source who could connect this Westerman International with some villainous black-market dealings in medicines and medical supplies in the Balkans, which is somehow associated with The Society for The Favour of War Orphans, headquartered in Bucharest.”
“A tangle web he weaves, to be sure.” He sat smoking as he kept an eye on the close door of Florence McLaren’s office. “But where in all that is our girl Florence?”
I arched an eyebrow as the barely-clad sailor girl scampered off behind a green velvet curtain. “I admit I don’t have as yet incontrovertible truth, but I believe Lively Investments is McLaren. I’m certain of it. A rather sly reference to the Orton revue upon which she received her greatest acclaim, ‘Step Lively’. And if so, it is but an arachnid thread leading ever to yon second floor parlour and our Florence.”
“But if that is true, Carmichael, the first hurdle, as I see it, is how is it that a chorus girl actress, with a penchant for narcotics, not only steals away this prime location, finances the construction of this extravagance, as well as, seemingly, in so short a time, becoming such a wicked amazon which tongs and murderous gangs do willingly give fealty?”
“Who said willingly? Which is why I believe now there is a power behind her.”
“Which by you estimation rustles as well in skirts?”
I nodded as the waiter arrived to place our drinks before us as the limelights dimmed and the band began an interlude. I took up my gin, “And might even be here tonight, just up yon steps.”
“Steady on, old boy. I am the fanciful one.” He said as the waiter left us. “Though, if I were casting for such a role, then that mysterious lady would certainly receive a call back as my feminine Dr Nikola. Yes – she would of course have to be what? A first-rate chess player, an accomplished mesmerist, thought-reader, theosophist and practitioner of necromancy.”
I snapped back my gin, well aware of his still sardonic tone as regards my conjectures — even as he had arrived earlier at my flat and invited me out into the winter night – not at all uncertain he was not working out in his mind some section of a new Manchu, or merely seeking atmosphere and colour, wherein I apparently had been cast as his Petrie – and he at times, as I had noted, becoming the intrepid Smith. “This enquiry agent of yours.” I cast a look over to him while he was reaching to pull the ashtray closer in order to tap the ash of his cigarette, “You said he too suspected as I?”
“I am not at all certain what he suspects. Chang Yu only said he has been about of late, enquiring about Florence and some importers on the docks. Enquiring as well as to just what connections some say she may have with various tong operations there. Which is why I up rang him up. Works for Hudson & Brand, you see, and I have had some dealings with him previously – a bit of research on my Six Gates. Left a message for him to join us—” He removed his pocket watch, “Which should be rather shortly.”
But before he could put the watch away, we both became aware of the door of the second landing opening, and of Sam Tai Ling exiting now to briskly make his way down the stairs to the main floor, where I took notice that the young naval officer, having left Kang Foo Ah in his wake, was moving through the maze of boisterous tables, so as to rendezvous with Sam Tai Ling at the foot of the stairs.
Even as Rohmer may very well have been using tonight to work out some narrative impasse, or the need of some description for an atmospheric section, I too had begun, as he said, to cast about for my own Rohmer or Boothby, serialization. To that end, I had to admit of late I had begun to question whether my journalistic instincts had begun to be coloured by this inclinations, and the latest incarnations, of the ever-growing popularity of master villains, who in some ways tend to outshine all their morally upstanding protagonists. The reader desirous of their sinister machinations. Earlier I had indeed admitted to Rohmer my work was becoming far more a novel – as I had even said so. And tonight, it seems I had been introduced to my intrepid hero, less upstanding perhaps, a bit of confidence about him—yes, well known to the criminal element to which he must move. For what had begun as a straight-up stringer’s freelance of nefarious dealings radiating out of Limehouse into proper London West End and the catastrophe of the world beyond, tonight, amid the ramble of the motor cab, the carnival of the musical hall and public room of Florence McLaren’s Coca Rooms my fabulous narration was taking shape.
There beyond the door of the second floor landing, I could envision Sal, in some long gown of black oriental silk sitting to receiving word from the mysterious ash blonde, whose power, to subvert even governments, reached across the channel to war torn Europe and beyond, and the man to stand in their way – the young naval officer, whose background has ties to these very elements of confidence and chicanery, who would be made heroic by the evil these women do.
I needed pen and paper and another gin.
But suddenly my train of thought was interrupted as the musical interlude began in preparation for the introduction of Gracie Gilibert—tonight’s stage attraction—even as the door of the office above opened once more and the beautiful ash blonde emerged.
“Rather a quick conversation, what?” Rohmer observed.
I fear I sat somewhat mesmerized by the woman as she slowly began her languid descent of the stairs. She held her head aloft, surveying the room – descending with the air of aristocratic sophistication interbreed with the feline grace of a lioness, in some seeming uncanny superiority, as if she were above all the classes and nationalities before her. And, for a brief moment as I could have sworn our eyes met – I felt perhaps of mankind itself.
“My god Carmichael she is your Cleopatra of Crime.” Rohmer said softly, even as we watched her now making her way as if to depart, and he reached into his jacket and removed his wallet to toss more than I knew would cover the cost of our drinks. “Quick, Carmichael!”
“Sax—I am not Petrie and you are certainly not Smith.” I told him even as we took up our coats and hats.
“Tonight old man, we are.” He said as we moved now among the tables, the stunning blonde sauntering now along the main walkway toward the entrance of the Coca Rooms. Kang Foo Ah with a flourish of his hand bidding her a goodnight.
The musical intro having already set the expectation, there was a rise of applause as the silken voice of willowy Gracie Gilibert broke the anticipation and she appeared with a seductively slow sashay, “If there is a spider in the centre of this conspiratorial web of yours—” Rohmer tossed back to me over his shoulder and the rise of revelry, as he slipped on his coat and set his hat at a rakish angle, “Then she is certainly it.”
“But your enquiry agent?”
“Time enough for Pulverton.” He said.
And the opening door made way for her even as a couple entering stepped back—and for the whole of the time I had been able to keep an eye upon her, she had not given a momentary glance in either direction – only purposefully straight ahead. A light mist of snow had begun once again to fall as we stepped out into the night to observe her just entering into the back of the sleek black Lanchester, the driver once more holding the door.
Rohmer lifted hand to motion to the driver of our own motor cab, which had found a niche not too far off the mark.. “Sorry, Carmichael—“ he had begun to say, only to be interrupted: –
“Who’s the looker?”
He was tall, broad of shoulder, and jaw, with the goods of an Adelphia Idol.
“Someone of interest.” Rohmer replied, having given the gentleman a quick glance before turning his attention once more to the motor cab’s negotiation of the narrow lane – even as the limousine driver now made his way around to enter and take up his position behind the wheel. “Whom we mayhap have flushed out for your huntsman that has you upon the scent.”
“Who says I am on a scent?”
“Someone to whom you have made enquires; I say, Sikes, do hurry, old man.” Rohmer anxiously watching the motor cab make its way past an idling Unic and some couple cautiously making their huddled way across the slicken ruts, “You should well know the silence told of Pennyfields and the Dock roads is ever but a shilling away from being broken. Good of you to have made it.”
I now quickly surmised that the gentleman was Thomas Pulverton, the Hudson & Brand enquiry agent we had made our way to the Coca Rooms to meet. His eyes narrowed as he looked from Rohmer, to me, and then to the Lanchester beginning to make its move, its headlamps illuminating the tiny flakes of the misting snow. “And so, gentleman, what are we about?”
“Perhaps nothing more than a mere snowy night’s excursion about London,” Rohmer offered as he snapped opened the door of the motor cab as it came to a halt before us, “Or, mayhap the beginning.”
“That my fine fellow is what we are about.”
For a brief moment the enquiry agent surveyed the street contemplating whether or not he was inclined, perhaps indiscreetly, depending upon the skills of Rohmer’s driver, to follow a woman, whom from all appearance gave the impression of social distinction, if not connections, upon nothing more than the cynosure of our curiosity. “At best it may be in lines with your enquires, at worst, something for our notebooks. But, decide quickly.”
Rohmer, though I knew him to be keenly aware of the departing limousine, stood holding the rear door open, awaiting Pulverton’s decision, which seemed ages in coming, before he climbed in and took a back seat, with me following; Rohmer closed the door and entered to sit beside the pugilistic driver: “Sikes, the Lanchester—we wish to keep it sight,” he directed.
And with a nod and slip of tyres, he hazarded his way about to do so.
“You reporters are becoming ever more adventurous,” Pulverton remarked as he pulled at the lapel of his overcoat in order to settle himself, “But, for what it’s worth, a word of advice. Limehouse is an overrated entertainment. These streets are not fictional. And one of these scribbler’s escapades is eventually going to lead to tragedy.”
“Like some foolhardy slum tourists.” I muttered, hands resting atop my cane.
“Brightwater’s Folly. So that’s what you’re about?” Pulverton remarked. An then added: – “What’s the interest in the cushy?”
“Nothing other than an intuition.” Rohmer said softly from his vantage in the front seat as he kept vigil of the limousine in the fine mist ahead, “There was something about her. Magnificently wicked-looking, and unmistakably uncanny – and if she’s not the epitome of Carmichael’s Black Widow of Crime, then she’s most certainly the muse of her creation.”
With which Rohmer made introductions and then briefly aired the general premise of my ‘Cleopatra of Crime’, and of how, once more, upon the refrain of how Limehouse was of his particular interest – especially now, what with his new Manchu soon to make its appearance in W.H. Smith bookstalls – he had decided to make some rather discreet enquiries – to which Pulverton made a comment, “pressing to see what presses back,” and Rohmer paused for a moment, as if to say yes, before pressing on to say that from what he understood from old Chang Yu, it would appear Pulverton was making similar enquires—and so, he thought a collaboration would be mutually advantageous. Not naming, but alluding to my having a source, which could prove: “Beneficial perhaps in being able to supply further information in regards to the interests of your client.”
“Well, she’s no longer on my ticket.” Pulverton explained, with some apparent irritation. “Being eccentric in the extreme. She finds herself better satisfied with someone who – shall we say – wears a skirt.”
“And yet, your still making enquires?” I observed.
He cut a look in silence.
“May I ask why?”
“Let’s just say, I’m a curious fellow.”
Thus said Pulverton sat back into the recess of the flickering shadows, his eyes, having cut a glance in my direction for a moment, before returning once more to watch the back of Rohmer’s head. It was apparent Rohmer’s communication had been sent by way of an invitation only – but even as Pulverton tried to conceal it by way of a disguised indifference – it was just as readily apparent his curiosity had seen to it that he had found a seat in the back of Rohmer’s cab. As no one has ever indicated that reticence was in my nature, and being a curious fellow as well, I pressed on: “So, this eccentric has an interest in Sal as well?”
“Not Sal from the start. More in line with looking into some possible questions regarding —” and he gave a slight smile, “Amalgamation and capital.”
And so in some small measure, I began to explain, as our cab made its way along the snowy dimly lit streets of London, the amalgamation and capital of connections found in the records, seemingly having been bequeathed to me by way of Jukes’s paramour, to which he sat back in silence, listening, with some such interest, glancing at the shop fronts in passing, having had not yet gotten to Lively Investments, before, upon my mentioning of the charity For The Favour for War Orphans, he pounced: —
“Charity?” He inquired rather than repeated: “Any such connection to Coldfall House?”
“The idée fixe of my – former – client.”
For a moment I looked at him. “Coldfall House Charitable Trust?”
“Could make a novel out of that.” He said with a knowing smile.
And I contemplated the depth of that organization, just as we were cornering now on to Albemarle Street and toward the Albemarle Hotel. Largely patronized by royalty, diplomats, and nobility. And yet, rogues as well. Wilde was known to have dined there.
Rohmer offered a gloved hand direction – to halt some way distant from the entrance and the nearest street lamp, but close enough to maintain our vigilance of the Lanchester pulling to a halt before the hotel.
“By my estimation she seems alone, save for the driver.” He said, leaning forward, on the edge of his seat and watching with some anticipation. “I see no evidence of watch dogs set about. Shall we?”
And we opened the doors to the cab, the cold wind bracing us as we pulled our coats tighter about us and made our way in the misting snow across the street to the hotel entrance. A doorman stood thickly in attendance.
“Pulverton.” George, somewhere over fifty, broad of shoulder, his greying hair well groomed, wearing the smart uniform of a doorman, ackonwleged..
“The lady that just entered.”
George only looked at him and said nothing.
Pulverton looked over to us – a look that said we were on his meter – and so I tossed over a sovereign, which he handed to the doorman.
And Pulverton sighed, “That buy us a look?”
“Lobby’s for free.” He said looking past us as he shrugged a shoulder, “Anything else, and they will be pulling me in, and it won’t go easy.”
“Thanks George.” And he turned away to indicate with a nod of his head to follow.
The warmth of the lobby was a welcome greeting as Pulverton withdrew his hands from deep in the pockets of his overcoat and with a slight shudder to dispel the fine flakes of snow, as he gave a look backward to the entrance, “Got all the allure of a constable with a truncheon.”
Before us there were a few patrons moving along the elegant lobby, the large dark wood of the front desk vacant save for the clerk. Still following Rohmer’s lead, we strode across the thick carpet toward the hotel salon. Hats and coats removed and handed over to the short matron with her hair pulled back in a tight bun, who quietly accepted them and gave us a knowing, well-practiced smile, being as it was a Sunday and the management aware the salon was to be open only to registered guests – everyone of course finding ways to circumvent the restrictions – she demurred to Rohmer’s furtive yet generous tip. “Key’s in the coat pocket, I would assume, sir,” she gave it a comforting pat.
“We’re looking for a lady.”
She smiled, “I think I know the very one.” And gave him a nod to the entrance to the salon.
We strolled in as if but gentleman at their leisure, being as a bold move versus a surreptitious one is at times the best, and took cautious note of the ash blonde seated at a table in the corner. She was in a quite conversation with an attractive, very fashionable dressed brunette.
“Margret Trelawney,” Rohmer said in a soft aside.
“Margret Trelawney?” I enquired; the name seemingly familiar.
“Her late father, Abel Trelawney, was one of the Egyptologists I spoke to when polishing The Mysterious Mummy for Pearson’s. “
“So, your Cleopatra’s nothing more than a listless daughter gone larking for a pipe,” Pulverton offered, as we approached the bar and he motioned to the barman. “Or something else to fill up a syringe — so as to set sail merely upon the Nile.”“Or a young wife married too soon to some wizen Earl who retires far too early.” I sighed.
Rohmer gave me a severe look, “The devil? It is your theory Carmichael – so stand up to it now. ” He upbraided me for casting doubts upon my own conjectures. We gave the barman a call for a round as we did our best to appear as nothing more than idle gentleman seeking but a brace for the evening.
I grew more careful in my glances as the brunette cast a look in our direction.
Only before our drinks were to arrive, the mysterious lady arose and left the salon. Rohmer tossed payment as Pulverton shot back his whiskey and I my tot of gin.
We hurriedly retrieved our hats and coats from the matron who gave a disapproving narrowing of her eyes – far too hasty a departure?
“What the devil—a brief meeting with Sal, and now—” Rohmer observed more to himself then to us as we made our way back out of the Albemarle.
Back through the mist of snow to Rohmer’s cab, the Lanchester already on the move, we climbed in and he gave the diver instruction. And once again we were upon the trail.
“Trelawney.” Rohmer mused softly.
“I seem to recall the name.” I offered leaving forward to peer ahead through the windscreen.
“Abel Trelawney. A renowned Egyptologist. He and several members of a group of eccentrics assisting him, were all rather fatally overtaken by some mysterious substance, it was reported, which was said to have been placed to thwart desecration, that growing cliché, when they opened some rather mysterious sarcophagus, he had brought back from an expedition. I heard about it when I was doing research in checking over some of my Egyptian references in The Mysterious Mummy” Rohmer explained softly as he intently watched the limousine ahead. “It is of interest, as well Carmichael, to take note, there were whispers that he was as well a member of some scientific coterie which had liaisons to British Intelligence.”
“So, these rendezvous—” I sat back in contemplation. “Rather short, what?”
“Perhaps dispatching orders to her footmen, or, receiving intelligence from her agents in the field, heh?”
“So, this is how you make a Zayat Kiss.” Pulverton remarked, lighting his cigarette. “Trailing along after some blonde in the night, making up some such stuff as dead Egyptologists, desecration of sarcophaguses, scientific coteries, and British intelligence. When comes the poison gas and insects?”
We fell silent.
The limousine made its way along the streets of London and we soon found ourselves passing long St. James to Pall Mall – it was evident we were headed to Whitehall.
Rohmer turned to give as both a look as the limousine came to a halt just down from the red brick building of Scotland Yard. There we watched as the ash blonde exited the Lanchester once again, stepping out into misting snow and the chill cold night without hat or coat.
“What the deuce?” I said in response to this unexpected event.
Rohmer peered through the windscreen, “Fascinating.”
The lithe blonde ever languid stepped along beneath a streetlamp – and I leaned forward going suddenly tense, as the lady suddenly seemed to have disappeared. There she was moving in that leisurely stride beneath the light of the streetlamp, and then, she took a step or two beyond its illumination, and – she was gone.