We follow a 22-year-old man on his first assignment for a Russian-English oil company as he becomes embroiled in intrigue and romance involving a beautiful Grand Duchess, American mobster Cherry Bim, and the influential Israel Kensky and his magical book of 'all power'. This unlikely cast of characters embark on an adventure full of twists and turns. (Goodreads)
A GUN-MAN REFUSES WORK
It was a big underground room, the sort of basement dining-room one finds in certain of the cafés in Soho, and its decorations and furniture were solid and comfortable. There were a dozen men in this innocent-looking saloon when the girl entered. They were standing about talking, or sitting at the tables playing games. The air was blue with tobacco smoke.
Her arrival seemed to be the signal for the beginning of a conference. Four small tables were drawn from the sides and placed together, and in a few seconds she found herself one of a dozen that sat about the board.
The man who seemed to take charge of the proceedings she did not know. He was a Russian-a big, clean-shaven man, quietly and even well-dressed. His hair was flaming red, his nose was crooked. It was this crooked nose which gave her a clue to his identity. She remembered in Kieff, where physical peculiarities could not pass unnoticed, some reference to "twist nose," and racked her brains in an effort to recall who that personage was. That he knew her he very quickly showed.
"Sophia Kensky," he said, "we have sent for you to ask you why your father is in London."
"If you know my father," she replied, "you know also that I, his daughter, do not share his secrets."
The man at the head of the table nodded.
"I know him," he said grimly, "also I know you, Sophia. I have seen you often at the meetings of our society in Kieff."
Again she frowned, trying to recall his name and where she had seen him. It was not at any of the meetings of the secret society-of that she was sure. He seemed to read her thoughts, for he laughed-a deep, thunderous laugh which filled the underground room with sound.
"It is strange that you do not know me," he said, "and yet I have seen you a hundred times, and you have seen me."
A light dawned on her.
"Boolba, the buffet-schek of the Grand Duke!" she gasped.
He nodded, absurdly pleased at the recognition.
"I do not attend the meetings in Kieff, little sister, for reasons which you will understand. But here in London, where I have come in advance of Yaroslav, it is possible. Now, Sophia Kensky, you are a proved friend of our movement?"
She nodded, since the statement was in the way of a question.
"It is known to you, as to us, that your father, Israel Kensky, is a friend of the Grand Duchess."
Boolba, the President, saw the sullen look on her face and drew his own conclusions, even before she explained her antipathy to the young girl who held that exalted position.
"It is a mystery to me, Boolba," she said, "for what interest can this great lady have in an old Jew?"
"The old Jew is rich," said Boolba significantly.
"So also is Irene Yaroslav," said the girl. "It is not for money that she comes."
"It is not for money," agreed the other, "it is for something else. When the Grand Duchess Irene was a child, she was in the streets of Kieff one day in charge of her nurse. It happened that some Caucasian soldiers stationed in the town started a pogrom against the Jews. The soldiers were very drunk; they were darting to and fro in the street on their little horses, and the nurse became frightened and left the child. Your father was in hiding, and the soldiers were searching for him; yet, when he saw the danger of the Grand Duchess, he ran from his hiding-place, snatched her up under the hoofs of the horses, and bore her away into his house."
"I did not know this," said Sophia, listening open-mouthed. Her father had never spoken of the incident, and the curious affection which this high-born lady had for the old usurer of Kieff had ever been a source of wonder to her.
"You know it now," said Boolba. "The Grand Duke has long since forgotten what he owes to Israel Kensky, but the Grand Duchess has not. Therefore, she comes to him with all her troubles-and that, Sophia Kensky, is why we have sent for you."
There was a silence.
"I see," she said at last, "you wish me to spy upon Israel Kensky and tell you all that happens."
"I want to know all that passes between him and the Grand Duchess," said Boolba. "She comes to London to-morrow with her father, and it is certain she will seek out Israel Kensky. Every letter that passes between them must be opened."
"But--" she began.
"There is no 'but,'" roared Boolba. "Hear and obey; it is ordered!"
He turned abruptly to the man on his left.
"You understand, Yaroslav arrives in London to-morrow. It is desirable that he should not go away."
"But, but, Excellency," stammered the man on his left, "here in London!"
"But, Excellency," wailed the man, "in London we are safe; it is the one refuge to which our friends can come. If such a thing should happen, what would be our fate? We could not meet together. We should be hounded down by the police from morning until night; we should be deported-it would be the ruin of the great movement."
"Nevertheless, it is an order," said Boolba doggedly; "this is a matter beyond the cause. It will gain us powerful protectors at the court, and I promise you that, though the commotion will be great, yet it will not last for very long, and you will be left undisturbed."
"But--" began one of the audience, and Boolba silenced him with a gesture.
"I promise that none of you shall come to harm, my little pigeons, and that you shall not be concerned in this matter."
"But who will do it, Excellency?" asked another member.
"That is too important to be decided without a meeting of all the brethren. For my part, I would not carry out such an order unless I received the instructions of our President."
"I promise that none of you shall take a risk," sneered Boolba. "Now speak, Yakoff!"
The man who had accompanied Sophia Kensky smiled importantly at the company, then turned to Sophia.
"Must I say this before Sophia Kensky?" he asked.
"Speak," said Boolba. "We are all brothers and sisters, and none will betray you."
Yakoff cleared his throat.
"When your Excellency wrote to me from Kieff, asking me to find a man, I was in despair," he began-an evidently rehearsed speech, "I tore my hair, I wept--"
"Tell us what you have done," said the impatient Boolba. "For what does it matter, in the name of the saints and the holy martyrs" (everyone at the table, including Boolba, crossed himself) "whether your hair was torn or your head was hammered?"
"It was a difficult task, Excellency," said Yakoff in a more subdued tone, "but Providence helped me. There is a good comrade of ours who is engaged in punishing the bourgeoisie by relieving them of their goods--"
"A thief, yes," said Boolba.
"Through him I learnt that a certain man had arrived in England and was in hiding. This man is a professional assassin."
They looked at him incredulously, all except Boolba, who had heard the story before.
"An assassin?" said one. "Of what nationality?"
"American," said Yakoff, and there was a little titter of laughter.
"It is true," interrupted Boolba. "This man, whom Yakoff has found, is what is known in New York as a gun-man. He belongs to a gang which was hunted down by the police, and our comrade escaped."
"But an American!" persisted one of the unconvinced.
"An American," said Yakoff. "This man is desired by the police on this side, and went in hiding with our other comrade, who recognized him."
"A gun-man," said Boolba thoughtfully, and he used the English word with some awkwardness. "A gun-man. If he would only-is he here?" he demanded, looking up.
"Does he know--"
"I have told him nothing, Excellency," said Yakoff, rising from the table with alacrity, "except to be here, near the entrance to the club, at this hour. Shall I bring him down?"
Boolba nodded, and three minutes later, into this queer assembly, something of a fish out of water and wholly out of his element, strode Cherry Bim, that redoubtable man.
He was a little, man, stoutly built and meanly dressed. He had a fat, good-humoured face and a slight moustache, and eyes that seemed laughing all the time.
Despite the coldness of the night, he wore no waistcoat, and as a protest against the conventions he had dispensed with a collar. As he stood there, belted about his large waist, a billycock hat on the back of his head, he looked to be anything from a broken-down publican to an out-of-work plumber.
He certainly did not bear the impress of gun-man.
If he was out of his element, he was certainly not out of conceit with himself. He gave a cheery little nod to every face that was turned to him, and stood, his hands thrust through his belt, his legs wide apart, surveying the company with a benevolent smile.
"Good evening, ladies and gents," he said. "Shake hands with Cherry Bim! Bim on my father's side and Cherry by christening-Cherry Bim, named after the angels." And he beamed again.
This little speech, delivered in English, was unintelligible to the majority of those present, including Sophia Kensky, but Yakoff translated it. Solemnly he made a circuit of the company and as solemnly shook hands with every individual, and at last he came to Boolba; and only then did he hesitate for a second.
Perhaps in that meeting there came to him some premonition of the future, some half-revealed, half-blurred...