An original never-before-seen Barker and Llewelyn short story: includes 7 FREE CHAPTERS of OLD SCORES, the next installment in the adventures of Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn.
Cyrus Barker, the most prominent and accomplished private enquiry agent in 19th century London, faces what might be the most dastardly crime of his career: his personal tobacconist has been murdered, his body found in his own humidor!
Now Cyrus Barker, with the help of his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn, must crisscross London in order to track the killer. As they follow the clues, Barker discovers that the victim, Vasilios Dimitriadis, was not a man worthy of Barker's trust. Can the Guv find whoever killed the skilled tobacco blender? While he is at it, can he find the secret formula Dimitriadis used to make his beloved tobacco blend?
About the Author
WILL THOMAS is the author of the Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn series, including The Black Hand, The Hellfire Conspiracy, The Limehouse Text, To Kingdom Come, and the Shamus and Barry award-nominated Some Danger Involved. He lives with his family in Oklahoma.
Read an Excerpt
The telephone set jangled on the corner of Cyrus Barker's desk, and we both turned our heads to stare at it. I do not like telephones. They rarely bring good news when one is a private enquiry agent. Barker snagged it with his beefy hands and grunted a terse greeting. After half a minute of listening, he sighed, muttered a thank you, and hung the receiver back on the hook. He pushed the set away from him and then drummed on his blotter in thought.
"Someone has died," I stated.
"Aye," the Guv answered. "It is Vasilios Dimitriadis."
"Isn't he the one who blends your tobacco for you but won't say what is in it?"
"Not 'isn't,' Mr. Llewelyn. 'Wasn't.' Scotland Yard has requested our presence immediately. Come along."
I found a cab in Whitehall Street and we were quickly on our way. The tobacco shop was found in the Minories, one of those few lanes in London that has no street or road in its name. It is just outside the City of London and was once a convent. Now it lay between the City and Whitechapel, without actually belonging to either.
The tobacconist had a shop on the corner of the Minories and St. Clair Street. It had no hoarding above the door, but a discreet sign beside it, reading: V. Dimitriadis Fine Tobaccos. A constable guarded the door from the public, but at our advent nodded the two of us inside.
"Barker!" a man called from the back of the shop.
I waited for a moment as my eyes adjusted to the gloom. As usual, the room was redolent of fresh tobacco and cigars, a homely scent.
"Cleaver," my employer rumbled in response.
I had heard this inspector's name before without actually having met him. 'Inspector Clever,' his compatriots called him, though I didn't know if it was a term of admiration or irony. He was a stocky fellow, with a small mustache and a forthright manner. It is as if the Criminal Investigation Department stamped out inspectors from a mold, like gingerbread men.
"He's there in the humidor," Cleaver said, gesturing toward a room not much larger than a wardrobe, lined with boxes of cigars. The open door was studded with glass panels.
I peered in upon the mortal remains of Vasilios Dimitriadis. In life he was a jovial fellow approaching forty, olive-skinned and dark-haired, with thick eyelashes and a ready smile. In death he was tragic, no less so because of the small, ornate dagger protruding from his breast.
"He was found this morning by those two gents there," the inspector said, indicating a pair of elderly men sitting at a round table by the front door, who were watching our arrival with some interest. They each wore a cutaway coat and bowler and had a medal pinned to their lapels.
"Sirs, I am Cyrus Barker," my employer intoned. "I was acquainted with Mr. Dimitriadis."
"I'm Alfred Stokes," the bearded one said, shaking his hand. "And this here is Colin MacKellar."
"I'm pleased to meet you both. Which one of you discovered the body?"
"We both did, sir," Stokes replied. "We arrived at the front door, found it locked despite it being working hours, then went 'round the back and saw the door there hanging open."
"Do you gentlemen come here often?"
MacKellar nudged his partner, then spoke in a high, reedy voice. "Come here often? Sir, we practically live here. This is the most convivial spot in all of London, or it was until this morning. It topped every public house. Sometimes Mr. Dimitriadis would allow us to try his wares for free. He showed the proper respect for veterans."
Barker turned to Cleaver, who was behind the counter opening random drawers.
"Was the store robbed?" he asked.
"The cash box is empty."
"A common robbery, then," the Guv said, with a look of disappointment.
"Strange knife," Cleaver remarked, as if it justified calling us out there.
He held up the brass knife for our inspection, having removed it from the corpse. It was shaped like a scimitar with an ornate handle, but was no longer than my hand.
Barker paced along the counter, past large glass jars of various blends and ingredients. Reaching over them, he lifted a pencil cup and began digging through it with his thick fingers. He retrieved a flattened cylinder of brass. It was a sheath.
"Your murder weapon is a letter opener, Inspector."
"Damn!" Cleaver cried. "I was hoping for an Arab secret society, at least!"
"There appears to be a small quantity of white powder underfoot," the Guv remarked.
"Yes, we'd noted that. I think it is chalk."
"Tell me, gentlemen," Barker said, addressing the elderly men at the table. "Was the door to the humidor as wide open as the back door?"
"That is how we found it, sir," MacKellar replied.
Cyrus Barker stepped gingerly into the humidor, though the chamber barely fit his outsized shoulders. He lowered himself to the floor and examined the corpse, even going so far as to open the stiffened jaw with his thumb. Finally, he rose to his feet, staring at the array of tobacco. His mustache tugged at the corners of his mouth. My employer was smiling.
"What?" I asked. "What is it?"
He shook his head and lifted one of the cigars to his nose, inhaling the aroma. Choosing a box, he lifted it and carried it out of the humidor.
"I believe Mr. Dimitriadis would not mind if we sample his wares."
"Here, now!" Cleaver warned. "That's evidence!"
"Come, Inspector, allow us to at least smoke a cigar in his honor," the Guv said, already offering the box to the old pensioners.
The latter had no objection to a free sample. There was a cup of vestas in the center of the table, and we all lit a cigar. Immediately, we began to choke.
"Worst cigar I've ever had!" the inspector said. "It tastes like seaweed. How did this man stay in business?"
"The odor you smell is chloroform," my employer replied. "Vasilios's tongue is blue from cyanosis. He has been asphyxiated. Someone coaxed him into the chamber and blocked the door until he succumbed. He was stabbed as an afterthought to put Scotland Yard off the scent, then the killer threw open this door as well as the one at the back to air the room. However, the chloroform gas leached into the cigars. He removed the bottle of the anesthetic and took it away with him."
"That's an awkward way to die," Cleaver said. "Why not just stab him here and have done with it?"
"Why, indeed?" Barker muttered.
"So, not a robbery at all, then."
"Decidedly not, Inspector. Thank you for calling. I assume there was some particular reason you thought of me?"
Clever Cleaver shrugged his shoulders. "The Greek kept a box with the names and addresses of his clientele, as well as a record of every sale. You were in the box."
"Did he by chance keep a record of his blends?" Barker asked, more interested in his supply of tobacco than the fact that he might be under suspicion by Scotland Yard in a murder enquiry.
MacKellar cleared his throat. "He always kept them in his head. Best blender in London."
My employer didn't care for that answer, but he pressed on.
"You gentlemen knew him better than I. What was he like?"
"Very nice, but bit of a dog where women are concerned, our Mr. Dimitriadis."
"Oh? Did a woman come into the shop yesterday?"
"No, sir," MacKellar answered.
"Hold on, Colin, yes there was," Stokes said, sitting forward in his chair. "But you was in the humidor when she come in. Mrs. Hornby fetched a box of cigars for her husband."
"Isn't it unusual for a woman to purchase cigars for her husband?" Barker asked, looking up from the list of customers Cleaver had shown him.
"Heard her say she took them to him and he'd take her to lunch. Not a bad trade."
"Who else came yesterday?"
"There was that Syrian. Khalif, his name is," Stokes said. "A pipe carver. Bit of an artiste. They argued, but not in English. Almost came to blows. Passionate sort of fellow was Mr. Dimitriadis."
MacKellar nodded. "There was also a fellow I saw speaking in low tones. Very mysterious gentleman, I thought. Thin chap, dressed in a long cloak and a glossy top hat."
"What did he purchase, if you can recall?" Barker asked.
"A pound of the house brand, Mr. Barker. 'Blender's Best.'"
The Guv ran a stubby finger down the list of customers. "'J. Welling, one pound B.B.'" The box has a card giving an address in Kilburn.
"Inspector, I feel we owe something to our victim for his good service these last ten years. May we come along? If I find the murderer before you, you may have the credit for his capture."
Cleaver frowned, coming to a decision. "I'll tolerate the two of you, but I reserve the freedom to toss you out if you become a nuisance."
"Perish the thought," I said, raising my hands.
"There! Like that. None of that sarcasm. Sorry, gentlemen," he said to the elderly men at the table. "You'll have to clear out and find a new roost to nest in. Leave your addresses with the constable."
The Guv inspected their medals as they stood.
"Are you gentlemen out-pensioners?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," Stokes and MacKellar said in unison.
"Crimean campaign. Where did you serve, Mr. Stokes?"
The little man puffed out his chest like a bantam. He looked like he was about to salute. "Sevastopol, sir. Royal Artillery."
Barker shook his hand with a nod. "And you, Mr. MacKellar?"
"Balaclava, attached to the 4 Light Dragoon."
The three of us, including Cleaver, stopped and looked at him.
"Attached?" my employer asked.
"Orderly, sir. Medical unit. I was the one who carried the poor souls wounded and dying from the field. I sawed many a shattered limb that day."
"'Into the Valley of Death rode the Six Hundred,'" I quoted.
The old man shivered as if I'd poured water down his back.
"Where do you live, if I may ask?" Barker asked them both.
"The City," Stokes said.
"Houndsditch," MacKellar answered.
Barker nodded, as if answering his own question. "Inspector Cleaver, the case is yours. How shall we proceed?"
"Let us visit Mr. Welling of Kilburn."
The mystery of the patron clad in black was solved as soon as our cab arrived at the address on his card. Welling's Funeral Services, Ltd. was in Springfield Lane. I could hear Cleaver laughing to his constable in the next cab.
"So much for our killer draped in black," he called as we alighted at the curb. "But while we are here, let us see if he has any information germane to the case."
We entered the establishment. A clerk led us to the manager in an office at the back. There the owner stood and gestured toward some chairs. The constable and I remained standing.
Welling was over six foot and rakishly thin. He was perhaps in his fifties, but his hair and beard were dyed black to compensate for the inevitable passage of time. His short beard had been carefully and precisely shaved. I could see why someone might consider him sinister. He looked like a stage actor.
"Scotland Yard?" he asked after Cleaver had introduced us. "What would bring you here?"
"A Mr. Dimitriadis was found dead in his humidor this morning. I believe he is an acquaintance of yours."
"Dimitriadis?" the man asked. "Dead? I have bought my tobacco there, but I would hardly call him an acquaintance."
"You were there yesterday, I understand," Cleaver went on. " 'Blender's Best?' "
"The best in town," Welling agreed. "Now, where I am going to get my mixture?"
Barker sighed. No doubt he was pondering the same question.
"Sir, can you establish your whereabouts last night and this morning?"
"Certainly, Inspector. I've a wife, children, and servants who can vouch for my presence. I left at six that morning by cab and arrived here by the quarter hour. My clerk arrived shortly thereafter."
"Had you developed an impression of the victim, or heard anything of him, apart from his abilities as a blender?" Barker asked.
"I don't mean to speak ill of the dead, but I've heard he was a rogue. He was a good-looking chap, I suppose, and he had a gift for jollying customers, so why not try those qualities on the fair sex?"
"Was there anything else?" the inspector asked.
"I've recommended him to various chaps. He had a way with a tobacco leaf. Am I a suspect in this crime?"
"The opposite, in fact, sir," Cleaver assured him. "We merely wish to establish your whereabouts in order to eliminate you from suspicion. There must be hundreds of customers, so we are starting with those who were at the shop yesterday. Could you give us your home address, sir?"
"Then we'll take up no more of your time or ours. P.C. Fields," he said, turning to his constable, "take down the gentleman's address. Good day, Mr. Welling."
When Barker and I returned to the cab, the Guv sat back and frowned.
"The inspector is no piker. Welling is indeed a suspect, but Cleaver made himself appear sympathetic to his situation."
The cab bowled forward into Springfield Lane. Our next destination was an office in the City. Mr. Daniel Hornby had not been in the shop the previous day, but his wife had. No sooner had we been seated in his office than he offered us one of the new cigars. After having had one laced with chloroform that morning, we each declined.
"What's this about, then, gentlemen?" Hornby demanded.
He was in his late thirties, as well built as a rugby player, with blond hair that was nearly ginger and steel-blue eyes. He was a stockbroker, and a good one, I should imagine. I hated him on sight. He was the kind of aggressive, mean-spirited fellow I avoided in grammar school.
"Are you acquainted with a man named Vasilios Dimitriadis?" Cleaver asked.
"Of course. He's my tobacconist. He sold me these very cigars."
"So you purchased them yourself?"
"No, my wife did."
"Why is that, sir?" Barker asked. "I understand he delivered cigars. Why send your wife to a questionable neighborhood?"
"First of all, she's my wife, and I can send her wherever in hell I like. As it happens, she bought a box for me one day when I ran out, and in appreciation, I took her out for tea. We've been doing it every month since. It helps her to avoid several calls and to get some air. I'd prefer a whiskey and soda, but Pearl requires some handling, so I take her to an A.B.C. She can't say I'm ignoring her if I take her to tea, can she?"
Hornby fell further in my estimation than before, telling a group of perfect strangers that his wife needed special handling.
"Had you visited the shop before?"
"Yes, but the task has fallen to my wife. She is always eager to please me."
Barker pushed himself to his feet.
"Obviously, sir, you were not there yesterday to add any information to our investigation," the Guv said. "Nevertheless, we would prefer to have your private address if we should have another question."
"I say, is that necessary?" Hornby asked. "Merely because some foreigner died?"
My employer turned to the inspector, as if deferring to him.
"If you have any objections," Cleaver said, "you are welcome to come to 'A' Division to enumerate them for us."
"That's not necessary, gentlemen. I'll give it to you."
Barker nodded and left. Even Cleaver would not shake his hand. I followed after as Constable Fields took down the address.
"Where shall we go next?" I asked the inspector when we were out on the street.
"The sculptor, Khalif."
Uri Khalif's studio was hard by the Docks of Wapping, a little garret covered in gritty white dust. It crunched under our boots and we dared not sit anywhere or a cloud of it would waft across the room. Khalif himself was covered in the powder. It speckled his curling black hair and beard and his gutta-percha apron. The cuffs of his trousers were filled with it. In fact, it was sepiolite, which is to say meerschaum.
Khalif was jittering, perhaps due to the cup of Turkish coffee I saw on the table. He had a block of the mineral in his hand and was carving as he worked, his sleeves rolled to his elbows. His English was better than I expected, given his exotic appearance.
"What were you doing in Mr. Dimitriadis's shop yesterday?" Cleaver asked.
"I was collecting my orders for the coming month. He had commissioned several pipes for me to carve."
"Aren't such pipes generally carved in Turkey and shipped here?" Barker asked.
"Generally, yes, but my pipes are works of art. I try to capture not only likenesses but movement as well."
He opened a drawer and retrieved a random pipe from among many. It was carved in the likeness of Napoleon. The curl on his forehead seemed to stand out from his brow and he was frowning as if in a fit of pique, perhaps at just losing Waterloo. I saw what Khalif meant by movement. The face was so realistic, I expected it to change expression.
Excerpted from "An Awkward Way to Die"
Copyright © 2017 Will Thomas.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Old Scores,
About the Author,
Also by Will Thomas,