Eight days after stepping off the Spirit of New Orleans from New York, Harris Stuyvesant nearly killed a man.
The fact of the near-homicide did not surprise him; that it had taken him eight days to get there, considering the circumstances, was downright astonishing.
Fortunately, his arm drew back from full force at the last instant, so he didn't actually smash the guy's face in. But as he stood over the prostrate figure, watching the woozy eyelids flicker back towards consciousness, the tingle of frustration in his right arm told him what a near thing it had been. He'd been running on rage for so long, driven by fury and failure and the scars on Tim's skull and the vivid memory of bright new blood on a sparkling glass carpet followed by flat black and the sound of the funeral dirges that-well, the guy had got off lucky, that was all.
He couldn't even claim it was self defense. The cops were right there-constables, he should call them, this being England-and they'd already been moving to intercept the red-faced Miners' Union demonstrator who was hammering one meaty forefinger against Stuyvesant's chest to make a point when Stuyvesant's arm came up all on its own and just laid the man out on the paving stones.
A uniformed constable cut Stuyvesant away from the miner's friends as neatly as a sheepdog with a flock and suggested in no uncertain terms that now would be a good time for him to go about his business, sir. Stuyvesant looked into the clean-shaven English face beneath the helmet and felt his fist tighten, but he caught hold of himself before things got out of control.
He nodded to the cop, glanced at the knot of demonstrators forming around the fallen warrior, and bent to pick up the envelope he'd dropped in the scuffle. He turned on his heels and within sixty seconds and two corners found silence, as abrupt and unexpected as the sudden appearance of the Union workers had been five minutes earlier.
He put his back against the dirty London bricks, closed his eyes, and drew in, then let out, one prolonged breath. After a minute, he raised his hand to study the damage: a fresh slice across the already-scarred knuckle, bleeding freely. With his left hand he fished out his handkerchief and wrapped the hand, looking around until he spotted a promising doorway down the street. Inside was a saloon bar. "Whisky," he told the man behind the bar. "Double."
When the glass hit the bar, he dribbled half of it onto the cut-teeth were dirty things-and tossed the rest down his throat. He started to order a repeat, then remembered, and looked at his wrist-watch with an oath.
Oh, what the hell did it matter? He'd spent the last week chewing the ears of one office-worker after another; what made him think this one would be any different?
But that was just an excuse to stay here and drink.
Stuyvesant slapped some coins on the bar and went out onto the street. It was raining, again. He settled his hat, pulled up his collar, and hurried away.
It had proven a piss-poor time to come to London and talk to men behind desks. He'd known before he left New York that there was a General Strike scheduled at the end of the month, in sympathy for the coal miners. However, this was England, not the States, and he'd figured there would be a lot of big talk followed by a disgruntled, probably last-minute settlement. Instead, the working classes were rumbling, and their talk had gone past coal mining into a confrontation with the ruling class. The polite, Olde Worlde tea-party dispute he'd envisioned, cake-on-a-plate compared to some of the rib-cracking, skull-smashing strikes Stuyvesant had been in, didn't look as if it was going to turn out the way he'd thought, either-not if men like those demonstrators had their way in the matter.
And God, the distraction it had caused in this town! One after another, the desk-bound men he'd come to see had listened to his questions, then given him the same response: Does this have anything to do with the Strike? Then please, I'm busy, there's the door.
Yeah, that miner had been damned lucky, considering.
Maybe when this next one showed him the door-Carstairs was his name, Aldous Carstairs, what kind of pansy handle was that?-maybe that would be where his temper broke. Maybe the bureaucrat would get what the demonstrator hadn't.
He couldn't help feeling he had reached the bottom of the barrel when it came to a straightforward investigation. Certainly, he held out little hope that Carstairs would do more than go through motions-he'd heard of the man more or less by accident the previous afternoon, sitting across the desk from a Scotland Yard official he'd met in New York years before. Now an exhausted and harassed-looking official in a day-old shirt who, even before the inevitable tea tray arrived, was sorry he'd let Stuyvesant in.
"No, I've already talked to that man," Stuyvesant told him, in answer to a suggested contact. "Yeah, him, too. And him. That idiot? He was one of the first I saw, and frankly, the sooner he retires, the better off your country will be. No, that guy's in France, and his secretary's useless. Now, him I haven't talked to, where-Scotland? Jesus, do I have to go to Scotland to ask about a man who lives in London?"
"I should give you to Carstairs," the Yard official muttered, then immediately regretted the slip and hurried on. "What about-"
"Been there. Who's this Carstairs fellow?" Stuyvesant's instincts had come alert, aware of some overtone in the way the man said the name, but the fellow shook his head.
"Just a name, honestly, he doesn't have anything to do with what you need. I think you should go talk to . . ." Stuyvesant was soon out the door, holding nothing more than three names on a slip of paper.
Outside the office door, a pair of men in bowlers sat waiting. Stuyvesant nodded to them, collected his hat and overcoat, and walked down the hallway and around the corner. There he stopped, staring unseeing at the scrap of paper.
Give you to Carstairs. Not, Give you Carstairs, which would have suggested the resolution of a grudge, but a phrase with a touch of fear in the background: I should feed you to Carstairs.
Stuyvesant counted to thirty, then doubled back to the Yard man's office. The two men were nowhere in sight when he walked in, and the secretary was just settling back at his desk.
"Sorry," the American said, "I neglected to get a phone number. Just let me pop in-"
"I'm sorry, sir, he has another appointment."
"Oh, I'll just be-wait, maybe I could get it from you instead? The name's Carstairs."
The secretary looked blank for a moment and Stuyvesant resigned himself to a dud, but then the man's eyebrows shot up. "Aldous Carstairs?"
"That's the man. You have a phone number for him?"
The secretary's glance at the closed door was eloquent testimony of the unusual nature of the request, but reluctantly, he went to a book in the bottom drawer of his desk, opened it to a page at the back, and copied out a number.
"Thanks," Stuyvesant told him, and that was how he found himself running ten minutes late on a pouring wet Friday afternoon, a bloody handkerchief around one hand and a sodden scrap of paper in the other, searching for an address that he finally located in an utterly anonymous building a stone's throw from Big Ben.
The doorman took one look at the figure that lurched into his tidy foyer and moved to return the straying lunatic to the streets. Stuyvesant pushed down the impulse to deck another Brit and summoned his most charming, lop-sided smile, assuring the man that he did, in fact, have an appointment with Mr. Carstairs, although he'd had a little accident, if he could just phone . . . ?
Without turning his back on the disheveled American, the doorman went to his desk to pick up his telephone. He spoke, listened, grunted, and hung up.
"If you'll just wait a minute."
It was less time than that when a weedy specimen with freckles and twitchy hands came through the connecting door and stopped dead. He looked at Stuyvesant, and at the doorman (who gave him a What-did-I-say? shrug), then stood back, holding the door.
"Mr. Carstairs?" Stuyvesant asked.
"His secretary," the man replied. "The Major is expecting you."
He led the sodden visitor through a hallway and up a flight of stairs to a dark, highly polished wooden door. Inside, he took Stuyvesant's hat and coat, hung them over the radiator, and went to the desk, where he pushed a button and said to the air, "Mr. Stuyvesant." He got the pronunciation right, Sty rather than the usual Stooey.
The response five seconds later was a click at the inner door; the secretary came back around the desk and opened it. Stuyvesant stepped into the dim office.
The man behind the desk was in his early forties, slightly older than Harris Stuyvesant, and smooth: dark, oiled hair, the sheen of manicured fingernails, a perfectly knotted silk tie, and nary a wrinkle on his spotless shirt. A visitor's gaze might have slid right off him had they not caught on his striking eyes and unlikely mouth.
The eyes were an unrelieved black, with irises so dark they looked like vastly dilated pupils. They reminded Stuyvesant of a wealthy Parisian courtesan he'd known once who attributed her success to belladonna, used to simulate wide-eyed fascination in the gaze she turned upon her clientele. Personally, her eyes had made Stuyvesant uneasy, because they'd robbed him of that subtle and incontrovertible flare of true interest. This man's eyes were the same; they looked like the doorway to an unlit and windowless room, a room from which anyone at all might be looking out.
The man's mouth, on the other hand, was almost obscenely generous, full and red and moist looking. His lips might have made one think of passion, but somehow, a person could not imagine this man lost in a kiss.
When he put down his pen and rose at Stuyvesant's entrance, the American saw the third element to the man's visage: a twisting, long-healed scar down the left side of his face, hairline to collar.
Stuyvesant walked forward, forcing his gaze away from the scar and onto those ungiving eyes. The scar was nothing, after all, compared to some of the damage he'd seen that week, seven and a half years after the war to end wars-although it looked more like the work of a knife than a bayonet. The man held out his hand; in response, Stuyvesant lifted the once-white rag.
"You probably don't want to shake this," he said. "I had a little altercation on the way here with one of your miners. I'll try not to bleed on the carpet."
The dark gaze studied the makeshift dressing, then shifted to Stuyvesant's clothing, and the man's nostrils flared just a touch-why the hell had he stopped for that drink, Stuyvesant asked himself-before he reached for the telephone on his desk.
"Bring some sticking plasters please, Mr. Lakely," Aldous Carstairs said.
The secretary came in carrying a small box. Carstairs lifted his chin at Stuyvesant's hand, and Lakely efficiently stripped away the handkerchief, wiped away the blood, applied the sticky bandages, and gathered the debris, without a word being exchanged.
"Our guest would probably like a coffee," Carstairs said. Stuyvesant might have hugged him, then and there, had he not noticed that, the entire time the secretary was in the office, he didn't look at his employer once. I should feed you to Carstairs.
Not a huggable kind of a guy, Aldous Carstairs.
When the door was shut again, Carstairs held out his hand, starting anew. Stuyvesant took it briefly, grateful the man didn't bear down: his whole hand had begun to throb.
"Aldous Carstairs," the man said.
"Harris Stuyvesant. Thanks for seeing me."
"Do sit down, Mr. Stuyvesant. What can I do for you?"
And for the twelfth-thirteenth? No, fourteenth time-Harris Stuyvesant launched into his tale of woe, which repetition had long since stripped of anything resembling urgency, or even interest: terrorist bombs, Communist plots, ho hum.
He began, as he had thirteen times already, by laying his identification on the man's desk, along with the brief letter from Hoover, which said little more than Harris Stuyvesant was an active agent of the United States Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation, and any assistance would be appreciated. The letter was showing signs of wear.
Carstairs directed his unrevealing regard on the lines of typescript and the signature, then back to Stuyvesant, who gathered away his possessions and began his spiel.
"Like it says, I'm an agent with the Bureau of Investigation. I've come over here, unofficial-like, because we're looking into some possible links between a series of bombs in our country and one of your citizens."
The coffee came then. Both men waited for it to be laid out and the secretary to leave.
"There are, hmm, official channels," Carstairs noted.
"Sure, and sometimes they're fine, but sometimes they're not." Stuyvesant listened to his own voice, and wondered why he was sounding like some small town hick-He'd very nearly said "ain't." Act like a Bureau agent, he ordered himself, not some bloody brawler marching into this fellow's nice office at three in the afternoon stinking of booze. He took the envelope from his pocket, seeing for the first time the scuff of someone's shoe on its crumpled flap, and removed the contents. One at a time, he unfolded each and laid it in front of the man.
"Last July, there was a fire-bomb at a Communist house in Chicago." He gave Carstairs a minute to look over the outline concerning the fire, then topped it with a newspaper clipping. "In November, a Pennsylvania judge in charge of a sensitive Union case nearly got himself burned to a crisp when his car went up in flames." Another piece of paper: "And in January, five men in a New York hotel room narrowly missed getting blown to pieces. The newspapers haven't put the three together yet, but it's only a matter of time."
He sat back and let the man look at the pages. Three explosions, one gelignite, two incendiaries, all packaged in unexpected but carefully thought out containers. The target of the first one still didn't make much sense, unless there was some rivalry-personal or political-that the Bureau hadn't picked up on, but one confusing motive was the least of his problems.
When he'd reached the end of the pages, Carstairs lifted those dark holes back onto Stuyvesant.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Touchstone by Laurie R. King. Copyright © 2007 by Laurie R. King. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.