London’s East End 1921
He landed with a thud in the alley. A cat shrieked; its complaint shredded adolescent nerves that were already on edge. If the beast hadn’t cried out, the boy might have escaped detection.
The cat took off, scampering like a rat in the dark warren of London’s East End. It probably felt threatened—Malcolm Roberts certainly did. As he righted himself and slid through a narrow passage, something grabbed his shirt. Fear flashed hot through his body. Then the material ripped, releasing him. He hurried between buildings while a sharp pain awakened at the top of his shoulder. Must’ve been a nail; must’ve sliced my skin.
Boots scraping against brick and grunting expletives told him the bullies were scaling the wall in pursuit.
Malcolm shot out on White Horse Road and realized he had the choice of returning to his home in Stepney or hightailing it to the Limehouse riverfront. Which should he choose?
His earlier decision had caused this mess. Unable to ignore his curiosity, he’d followed the group of ne’er-do-wells. He’d been proud of his ability to shadow suspects almost as well as his penny-dreadful hero, Detective Phoenix. Their mission was just about completed when he sneezed.
Malcolm cursed his sneeze—and his curiosity.
His life depended on making the right choice now. Those thugs would prove as intent as disturbed bees. Although street noise swallowed up their racing footfalls behind him, Malcolm knew he had to keep on. Should he run to his father or friend?
If Joe Hasani the waterman was docked at his berth, Malcolm could escape across the Thames, putting real distance between him and the hoodlums.
Malcolm headed for Joe, running like a thieving urchin.
Along White Horse, he wove and jostled his way against the throng, aware that the crowd would likely thin out as workers headed for home or pub.
He ducked into another alley and moved with caution along its blackness. The pounding pulse in his ears complicated all efforts to listen for trouble. Unseen bits of rubbish squished and crackled beneath his shoes. A wave of stench rose like a gloved hand intent on smothering. Water dripped from rotting rooftops. Slowly, he realized he was approaching a human form. It was a woman, standing with hands on hips. He knew the type and continued onward.
“A heavy breather, I see.” She reached out with fingers fluttering along his arm, an affront as unwelcome as her rank odor. “What a handsome young man you are.” He sprinted out and across the next street.
He darted this way then that, sure that the boys had split up in their search. Needing to keep apace toward the river, he rounded a corner. Panic surged at the sound of his own footfalls, echoing up from the pavement, bouncing off walls, betraying his presence along Lambert’s warehouse.
“There ’e is!” The voice ricocheted off brick and water, distorting its distance and direction.
As the scene ahead appeared, Malcolm broke out in a profuse sweat. There were no shipments coming or going along the immediate stretch. And he was in plain sight.
“I’ll go round and head him off.”
“Oi’ll get ’im first!”
The docks loomed ever closer. One way or another, the chase would end. He prayed Joe would be there. Malcolm’s chest and throat burned raw. His lower limbs, pumping along the pavement, begged for relief with alarming hints of wobble. Dampness glistened on the cobbles. He darted for a clearing near the docks then lost his footing. His head hit the ground. He tried to get up but instead flopped like a stunned fish. Urgency then broke through his muddled thoughts. He shot up, poised to sprint.
Footfalls and heavy breathing filled the air.
Malcolm dashed around some crates. “Joe, Joe! Are you there?” Empty carts and wagons blocked his view of the waterman’s post.
“Got me knife ready. I’ll slash him first!”
“Oi’ll have ’im dead long before you get ’im.”
“Oh, please be there, Joe,” Malcolm cried to himself.
He rounded a parked lorry—the boat was gone. Malcolm gazed desperately over the Thames. Then he spotted Joe, out on the water, bobbing toward him, rowing hard.
The thugs gained more and more ground.
“Joe, I’m coming! Help me!” Malcolm ran down the pier. If he slipped, he’d be caught and flayed alive. He knew it.
Malcolm kept running. Just before reaching the end, and with surprising strength, he dove into the river. The cold water shocked his limbs and they almost failed him. Just then, his attempts to tread water took purchase but waves washed over his face, repeatedly blocking sight of Joe.
The ferryman heaved the oars with intent. Malcolm hoped Joe had heard him, hoped he wouldn’t row right over him.
Jeering cries cackled from the end of the pier, but no sounds of anyone diving in followed. Malcolm thanked Heaven as he struggled to keep above water.
Joe’s boat angled toward him.
A wave slapped Malcolm’s face and he swallowed a mouthful of foul river. A coughing fit sapped his strength. Water closed over his head. Though his arms were moving, he sank. He felt a nudge, then another. Some bloated thing bumped his arm; its slimy flesh sidled next to him. The horror of a nuzzling corpse galvanized Malcolm’s limbs. His weary legs thrust again. Surfacing, with water dripping before his eyes, he saw an oar.
“Grab it! Come on, boy. Grab it.”
Malcolm stretched for the oar. He grasped it. Flutters of relief somehow made him buoyant, but he had never climbed into a boat from the water before. Joe pulled him up to the side.
“Can you get yer foot up, boy?”
Gripping the gunwhale, he tried to kick into position. The bloated body seemed intent on sticking to him. “Augh!”
“The bloody Thames,” Joe cried. “Come on, boy.”
Malcolm’s next attempt failed and his legs went under the boat’s bottom.
With greater force, he swung his right leg out and up. He almost hooked his heel over when the slimy corpse slid along his back, distracting him. “Augh!”
He swung again and was up, up and over. The moment’s exhilaration crashed when knees and hands struck the rocking wooden hull.
“Can you sit up? There you go. Here’s a blanket; it’s a wee bit damp but a helluva lot dryer than you be.”
Malcolm got situated, balancing his position, despite light-headedness, pain and burning lungs. His gaze shifted to the corpse bobbing off and away.
He swallowed down a swell of nausea.
“We’ll leave that floater be. I’ll get you away from that lot at the docks. No need to report the matter. The police’ll be of little use. You know how I feel ’bout them, and ’bout one in particular.” Joe’s voice softened. “Lessee, I’m headin’ for Wapping Old Stairs, I am, where I’ll set you down before a nice fire. Town of Ramsgate, me favorite pub. Some brandy in yer tea’ll help get you straight and ready to go home.”
Joe Hasani had come to London’s East End from the Balkans at such a young age that he spoke like a reg’lar, like the average worker along the Docks. Malcolm didn’t fully understand the bond they enjoyed, but he suspected it came from a pain neither had ever revealed. Perhaps they each in their own way felt like a foreigner.
“Thank you, Bess darlin’,” Joe said. “I had to fish ’im out of the river. Had a fright, he did.” Joe slid Malcolm a side glance and winked, his meaning clear—an agreement to reveal as little of the matter as possible.
Malcolm managed a weak smile against his chattering teeth.
When they’d walked in, Malcolm had wanted to take off his river-sodden clothes, imagining bits of corpse flesh stuck to them. But he couldn’t yet, of course. The barmaid, Bess, shooed away those nearest the fire. After the two settled in its warm glow, she returned from the back and draped a fresh blanket over him, handing the damp one to Joe.
“I’ll be back wiv some special tea for you, lad.” She winked at Joe.
Before she left, Joe turned to him. “Bread and cheese, boy, or a bit o’ cake?”
Malcolm imagined a waterman might not be able to afford more and was torn between embarrassment and gratitude. He wanted to say tea would be enough but with all the panicky sensations subsiding, he felt extremely hungry.
“Owh, ’e should ’ave some of me stew,” Bess insisted. “Somethin’ hot and hearty is wot ’e needs. It’ll be on me, luv.” Bess touched Joe’s shoulder and left.
As she maneuvered her bountiful curves through the crowd and toward the kitchen, looking less motherly than before, Malcolm considered old Joe in a new light.
Lightning flashed behind heavy draperies. The answering thunder shook Malcolm’s upholstered chair, threatening to snuff out the small glimmerings of comfort he felt after his hot bath. Though sitting near the steady flame at home, he shivered and pulled a blanket around his shoulders.
“Well, that was some adventure for you, son.” Captain Roberts settled into the wing chair across from him, holding what Malcolm counted as his father’s third brandy since Joe dropped him home. “You must be proud of yourself.”
“But I ran.”
“There’s nothing wrong with retreat when you’re outnumbered. You showed daring and resourcefulness, swimming out to Joe like that. Thirteen years old and you can think like a reconnaissance man behind enemy lines. Intelligent beyond your years. Here, here.” The captain raised his glass.
“But what if he hadn’t been out there?” Malcolm asked, frustrated at hearing the quiver in his voice. “I would’ve been caught and filleted on the docks.”
Malcolm wanted something more from his father. If his near-death experience didn’t rattle the captain from distraction, what could?
Staring at his brandy, the captain said, “I imagine you might have chosen to borrow some moored boat…or dive in the river, as you had done, but swim parallel, say, to Duke Shore stairs.” The former military man pulled a slow draught of the liquor.
“I reckon you’re right, sir.”
“You’ve proven my theory correct, Malcolm. By allowing you the freedom to explore where you wish, you are, I see, developing manly traits—those necessary for the day you become a soldier.” The ‘freedom’ was his father’s, free of a parent’s responsibility.
Having grown up on the heels of the Great War, Malcolm had become disenchanted with such a career. In his mind, ‘soldier’ meant ‘cannon fodder’, for he had learned of nothing but death and neuroses for the enlisted. The latter type of casualty sat before him.
Malcolm fiddled with the edge of the blanket, saddened by another conversation with hope set against vexation. His father’s acknowledgement was not empathy; it was not love. Malcolm felt as though he were taken for granted, much like the Turkey rug beneath their feet—the carpet was fine but not necessary; it was something acknowledged but not appreciated.
A promise arose in Malcolm’s heart: He would earn his father’s love, he would come to matter more than a rug—or die trying.
His father added, “It was highly fortunate that Joe was there for you, I’ll admit. I can’t understand why he continues his ferry business. It’s not as if we don’t have bridges. His Majesty just opened Southwark.”
“People still need to go up or down the river, Father. Not just across.”
“Well, he can’t be making much of a living. At least not from legal custom.”
Malcolm frowned at hearing anything against Joe. A spark popped and alighted on the edge of the hearth. Malcolm watched as its pulsating life ebbed away.
Another flash of lightning conjured up an image of himself in the water—this time, bobbing in the Thames as a ripped-open corpse.
“Did any of those ruffians get a look at your face?”
“I don’t see how they could have. Not really.” His mind grappled for details. Had any of the cries or footfalls come from the side? Had anyone been close enough to have noted his profile? He couldn’t even recall whether he had run beneath street lamps along the way.
His father fought down a belch and added, “Before they realized you were there, you surely noticed something about them, something to recognize.”
“Only the solicitor, Mr. Crocker.” Malcolm placed his cold hands in the folds of the blanket. “The rest had their backs to me. Wait a tick! One of the lads was taller. His back was huge and hunched. He might have been rusty-haired, but he wasn’t standing too close to the light, and he had his cap on.”
“And, what did you actually see them doing beforehand?”
He watched his father take another savoring sip, then replied, “Um, I started trailing them when they turned into the alley from Burgess Street.
Something about them didn’t look right. Two of them kept looking around, and . . . well, I began wondering. So, I hung back and then followed. They’d pushed their barrow up behind Crocker’s solicitors’ office. The crates were marked on their sides, with bold letters, five, I think. And when Crocker pried one open, he called them cricket balls—”
The captain jerked, sloshing half the contents of his glass down his shirt.
“Uh,” Malcolm continued, “they didn’t look like any cricket balls I’d ever seen.”
“They were made of metal.”
“Right. How did you know?”
“Explosives. Grenades. Must have been stolen government goods.”
“That makes sense because of the way they were talking. I couldn’t make out most of the words, but—well, it sounded like they were up to no good.”
The captain’s hands quivered, and with concentrated effort, he set his glass down. It pained Malcolm to see angst settle upon his father’s features; it pained him even more that his father evidently read his thoughts and noticed the pity in Malcolm’s eyes. Gathering what dignity he could, the man squared his shoulders and cleared his throat.
“Yes. Crocker opened another crate. This time I could clearly see that its sides were marked “Books”. But it was full of truncheons. I bet they were stolen from the police.” He hoped for his father’s smile, for acknowledgement of his deduction, but the man’s gaze trained on something beyond Malcolm, beyond the room.
The fire hissed. Malcolm picked at a loose thread on the blanket before venturing to look up. His father’s face had blanched to the color of stone. The familiar reaction made Malcolm’s insides twist to the point of suffocation. The captain regained his focus and opened his mouth to speak.
“Excuse me, sir,” Annie their only remaining servant said, slicing the air between father and son. With her usual wary eyes and shallow breaths in the presence of the captain, she stood by the parlor door and added, “Will you be needin’ anethin’ else before I go, sir?”
Captain Roberts stood and offered a quick bow. “No, thank you, Miss Annie. Good night.” He bowed again. Malcolm had almost gotten accustomed to such odd behavior—bowing to maids as if they were ladies. It wasn’t done. But no one visited them anymore. No one knew but Annie and him.
Annie stumbled a half-curtsy, never quite sure what to make of this formal business. “Good night, then.” She turned and headed for the back door.
The familiar ache intensified in Malcolm’s chest. A full household of servants had fled soon after his father returned from the war. After his mum died of influenza, even Cook left, leaving the two to fend for themselves, which they had done, pitifully, until Annie had mysteriously shown up on their back step.
Music ceased to fill the house. His mother had adored symphonic works and her Victrola. Though commanded not to touch it, Malcolm had once done so, but painful memories kept him from it thereafter.
Malcolm had been six when his da first crossed to France and ten years old when the war ended. It had taken hardly any time for him to realize Captain Roberts had returned a different man.
The embers glowed hot. Malcolm wrapped himself up tighter in the blanket. He’d had a hard enough day. He hoped to heaven he’d get through the night without incident.