small of my back, he pushed me forward, out onto the step.

'You look like you could do with some lunch,' he said, conversationally.

'I have the position?' I asked, astounded.

'Never any doubt.' He leaned out over the balustrade and retrieved my case from the dustbin. 'Don't forget your belongings. Come, we'll take a hansom cab.'


We did indeed take a Hansom cab. IT was my first. It was awkward climbing the small steps and twisting around the leather doors, into the seats. It was even more so sharing such intimate quarters with a perfect stranger. Barker sat just inches away, facing forward, and did not speak once during the entire journey. He might have been a wax figure from Madame Tussaud's for all his animation. We crossed Waterloo Bridge and rode for miles. Stamford Street was followed by Southwark; Saint Thomas turned into Druid Street. There were dozens of public houses and restaurants along the way, but we passed them all. Tower Bridge took us back across the Thames again, and then we were in the East End. The cab glided through a maze of shabby streets until I became hopelessly lost. Were we in Whitechapel? Stepney? Bethnal Green? Finally, the cab turned toward an alleyway so narrow that the horse shied, and the cab would have scraped axles on both sides. It was a villainous alley, with ancient stone arches overhead and litter at our feet, but Barker alighted and headed down it, as if it were his home. Perhaps it was. Maybe all his money went into the upkeep of his office, and he lived in some hovel alongside the sailors and asiatics of Limehouse. Barker came to an unmarked, peeling door at the end and opened it, ushering me in with the nod of his head.

It was black as pitch inside. I heard metallic scraping in the darkness, then a match sputtered into life. My new employer lit a naphtha lamp and held it high. We stood in a confined space, with concrete walls on both sides. Barker pointed down a flight of long steps into Stygian blackness. He was playing Virgil to my Dante. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Very well, I motioned, lead on.

I followed him down the dark stone steps, our footfalls echoing and multiplying until the sound filled my ears. There was a pressure in my ears as well, and I reasoned that we might be under the Thames. After a couple of dozen steps we found ourselves in a long stone corridor, just barely wide enough for two men to walk abreast. Twenty-five or thirty paces later we reached another staircase and began to ascend, not soon enough for me. The light winked out, there was a scraping of the lamp on concrete, and a door opened before my eyes.

We entered a long, low-ceilinged room full of people eating and talking. The room was dark and smoky, and full of a strange aroma. My stomach recognized food when it was close; it constricted to the size of a cricket ball. I won't go into how little I had eaten over the past few weeks, or what I had lived upon, except to say that I was now in no way particular. Whatever they were serving, I would gladly eat.

A shadowy figure shuffled forward and led us to a table, lit by a flickering penny candle. I squinted and tried to see my neighbors, then wished I hadn't. The first had a bristling beard and a disreputable hat on his head. The second looked like he'd arrived straight from the steppes of Mongolia, and the third was a stage version of an anarchist from a Russian play. I glanced at my employer. With the scar on his brow and his fierce mustache, he seemed as sinister as his fellows.

'What are weЧ' I began, but Barker raised a hand. A man stepped into the nimbus of light cast by our candle and looked intently at us. He was Chinese, but far from the normal everyday Chinaman one sees in the area. He was shaved bald on top, had a long rope of hair in a plait hanging down his chest, and his earlobes were an insignificant distance from his shoulders thanks to the heavy steel rings in them. He wore a splattered apron over an undershirt and trousers, and rope soled shoes. His arms were a riot of tattoos, and his stomach preceded him to the table. He reminded me of statues of Buddha I had seen in photographs or stereopticons, save that he wasn't jolly or serene. This was a Buddha that would as soon have your liver out as look at you.

The man spoke to us in Chinese, and you can imagine my surprise when Barker replied in kind. My new employer rattled off Mandarin as if it were his native tongue. The Chinaman nodded once and left.

'That was Ho, the owner,' Barker said. 'I ordered for both of us, presuming you've never been in an Asian restaurant before. Don't overeat; in your condition it will only make you ill. Understand also that one of the terms of your employment is that you do not gain back your former weight. I want you thin as a lath and wiry as a terrier. It is your best chance of survival.'

My stomach was trying to tie itself into knots by now. The pain was so intense I could barely sit in the chair. In a few moments, an Asian waiter appeared and slapped down two bowls of a colorless broth, with all the grace of a Spitalfields barmaid. I waited for a spoon, but none was forthcoming. Barker raised the porcelain bowl to his mouth and strained the soup through his big mustache. I hazarded a sip. It was not bad, not bad at all, really. There were spices and vegetables and some sort of noodles at the bottom. Definitely edible, even without a spoon.

The bowl was whisked away, and a plate of small sweetbreads put in its place. Barker reached forward and speared a piece between two thin sticks of wood. Chopsticks. I'd seen them before in pictures of China.

'So, how do you use these things?' I asked. Barker showed me. It takes some knack. No one exactly stood and applauded my performance, but I managed to get a few pieces of fried pork in my mouth before the plate disappeared and the next arrived. It was a good thing, too, for I was just about to set my chopsticks down on my plate.

'By the heavens, man!' Barker cried, making me jump. 'Never set your chopsticks across your plate like that. It announces that you are finished with your meal. We'd have had to pack up and leave before the main course. It is a definite insult to the cook, and believe me, it is not wise to insult Mr. Ho.'

'Yes, sir!'

The main course proved to be steamed duck in a white wine sauce. If the soup was subtle and the sweetbreads delicious, the duck cemented my opinion that the Chinaman was a genius in the kitchen.

Barker hoisted a watch at the end of a long chain from the well that was his pocket and consulted it. His hand went down, decisively, and placed his chopsticks across a corner of his plate. Then he removed a sealskin pouch from his coat pocket. I watched him with some interest. At this point, there was nothing I could discount that he would do. If he suddenly pulled a wavy sword from under the table, lit it afire from the penny candle, and swallowed it down to the hilt, I would probably just nod my head and say, 'That Barker, anything to put you off guard.' As it was, he reached into the pouch and pulled out a pipe, one of those white meerschaums, with a stem made of amber. It was carved in his own image, from the bowler hat to the spectacles and mustache, and still further to an effigy of the pipe itself, stuck in the little pugnacious jaw. The white mineral had taken on a rich ivory hue from much smoking, and with loving care, Barker charged it with tobacco from the pouch, tamped it down with a meaty thumb, then topped it off with a few more strands before striking a vesta on the rough table in front of us. He ran the flame in circles around the inside of the bowl and blew out the match, before tucking the stem of the pipe between his strong, square teeth.

'This place is unique,' he stated. 'Ho does not advertise, but the place is always full. There are unspoken rules here. Don't ask what is in the food, and don't repeat what you hear within these walls. This is neutral ground. An Irish Fenian may plan to assassinate a member of the House of Lords tomorrow, but today, they are seated at the same table here, enjoying a meal. Isn't there a child's game that has a safe spot where no one may be tagged or captured? That is Ho's.'

'Remarkable. And the only way in is through that passage?'

'Yes. I don't know what its original purpose was. Smuggling, perhaps, or a Catholic bolt hole during the reign of Henry the Eighth.'

Barker puffed for a moment, silently, then heaved a sigh of contentment. We, most of us, have these safe places in our lives, where we can go and eat food that is meant not to impress but merely to satisfy. Seeing my employer contentedly leaning back in his chair, with a pipe going and his boot against the base of the table, showed me beyond any word that this was such a place to him.

'The interviewing of candidates for assistant has taken more time than I had hoped,' he said eventually. 'I have an investigation or two that had to be set aside during the hiring process. I must now make up for lost time. I shall not return to my home until late. Here,' he said, retrieving a folded sheet of paper from his pocket, 'is a list of

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