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Free Excerpt 5/5: Book of Secrets by Chris Roberson

Here’s the final installment of a free excerpt from Chris Roberson’s latest book, Book of Secrets, available from Angry Robot Books. (See also: Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.) The novel is described as follows:

Reporter Spencer Finch is embroiled in the hunt for a missing book, encountering along the way cat burglars and mobsters, hackers and monks. At the same time, he’s trying to make sense of the legacy left him by his late grandfather, a chest of what appear to be magazines from the golden age of pulp fiction, and even earlier.

Following his nose, Finch gradually uncovers a mystery involving a lost Greek play, secret societies, generations of masked vigilantes…and an entire secret history of mankind.

Book of Secrets

by Chris Roberson



Through Martenson, the Black Hand learned that the meeting between Dupree and the Talon was to take place that night, at the edge of Golden Gate Park. When the hour came, the Black Hand was in place, this time with twin .45 automatics at the ready.

Dupree was to wait in a clearing, a suitcase full of cash at his side. The police were hidden amongst the surrounding trees, waiting for the signal to close. When the Talon arrived, the police would encircle him, and cut off escape.

The Black Hand watched the officers take their positions, himself hidden in amongst the branches of a tree, some eight feet off the ground. From that vantage point he had seen a gap in the police’s net, one the Talon could use to his advantage, and it was this spot he kept watch over.

At the stroke of midnight, as arranged, a hooded figure stepped into the clearing, dragging behind him a blindfolded and gagged woman. It was the Talon. In the moonlight a pistol glinted evilly in his hand.

Without a word, he motioned Dupree to throw him the case of money.

“Give me my wife first,” Dupree shouted, red-faced and trembling.

Again, the Talon gestured for the case, and then turned the pistol on Dupree’s whimpering wife.

“Okay, okay,” Dupree answered, and threw the case across the clearing to land at the hooded figure’s feet.

With one hand keeping the pistol trained on Dupree’s wife, he reached with the other to retrieve the case. Then, stepping slowly behind her, he shoved her into the clearing and hurried back to the trees. In an instant, the police emerged from hiding and rushed towards him, but to no avail. By cunning, or dumb luck, the Talon was running directly towards the hole in their net. But the Black Hand stood ready.

As the hooded figure passed underneath him, the Black Hand leapt from his perch, landing on the Talon with the force of a sledgehammer. He batted the pistol from the hooded man’s hand, and then brought his own guns to bear.

“This time, fiend,” he hissed behind his mask, “I have my own claws with me. And now, you will tell me what you know.”

Under the hood, the Talon quivered. The black hand of justice was upon him, and he felt its strength close around him!


The police found the man beneath the hood a short while later, whimpering and unmasked, tied to a lamppost. The Black Hand had learned what he needed from the man, and left him behind.

The man had turned out to be one Charlie Parsons, an out of work dockworker. He was a rough cut, simple man and, though not above breaking the law to suit his own needs, he was no criminal mastermind. The Black Hand had seen early that Parsons what nothing more than a pawn, a dupe. The true source of the evil at hand lay elsewhere.

Parsons, easily frightened into playing stool pigeon by the masked figure under the dark trees, had confessed that he knew nothing about the kidnappings. He had been hired by a hooded man simply to escort a bound woman into the clearing, retrieve a briefcase, and then return to the hooded man waiting in a sedan on a darkened street nearby. To Parsons this was simply a job, a strange one of course, but if a mysterious man wanted to pay him a month’s salary to stand around wearing a hood and waving a gun about it was fine with him.

Of his employer, Parsons could only say that he had picked him up off the streets near the dock, where he had been looking for work. He had been driving a late model, dark colored sedan, and had spoken only in whispers. He had never encountered the man until earlier that evening, and in his words had never broken the law in his life. This last the Black Hand doubted, but left that for the courts to determine. He was onto bigger prey.

Stepping into the shadows a short distance from the park, the mysterious avenger of the night emerged into the light in the guise of Richmond Taylor. Then he made his away across town to his home, and spent a sleepless night in his study, staring quietly into the darkness, contemplating. Morning came quickly, the sunlight streaming in through the shuttered windows, and Taylor reached for the phone.

He placed a call to police headquarters, and in the Black Hand’s raspy voice asked to speak with Joe Martenson.

“Martenson here,” came the reply after a short while.

“Joseph,” Taylor whispered into the receiver, “the Black Hand has use for you.”

“Go ahead,” Martenson answered, his voice grave.

“The man known as the Talon still holds an innocent in his clutches. I would see her released.”

“Well, you’re not alone,” Martenson replied. “She’s not either, anymore.”

“Explain yourself.”

“The Talon’s got another bird in the hand now. Another millionaire’s kid. Peter Matthews.”

“I see,” Taylor answered. “I see.” He paused. “Your service is valued, Joseph,” he went on. “I shall remember your loyalty.”

With that, Taylor hung up the phone. Now two lives hung in the balance. What was needed now was a visit to the docks. Then nightfall, and action!


Taylor spent the day up and down the wharf, talking to dock masters and ship captains from one end to the other. He played the bored investor, trying to find sound investments for his family’s fortune. Were there any empty warehouses to be had, he asked, any piers on which space might be rented? His family was moving into shipping, he explained, and wanted to gain a foothold in the market. He let slip that he was looking for qualified men to run the operation, too, which went far towards loosening recalcitrant tongues.

In the end, Taylor caught a cab and returned home. Once there, he unrolled a large map of the city onto his dining room table, and in a blunt-end pencil began to mark different locations one by one. With his considerable power of recall, he traced the route the hooded man had fled by two nights before, placed a large “x” upon the spot where Parsons was hired, and then began to triangulate positions and calculate distances to the half dozen warehouses he had circled. After half an hour’s work, he had his answer. He rolled up the map, and returned it to the shelf.

He dressed quickly. First the black wool suit, shoes, and leather gloves. Then he slipped various tools and devices into his pockets, and into the hollow heels of his shoes. Next he loaded his twin .45s, and slipped each into its shoulder harness. Last came the snap brim fedora, the full face mask ready to fall into place. Thus outfitted, he strode across the room to the phone.

The line rang four times, and then a groggy voice answered.

“Yeah, this is Nick,” came the muffled voice. “Whadya want?’

“Nicholas Oliverio, the Black Hand has use for you.”

“What? Oh, sure, yeah, I’m up.”

“You will meet me at the following address, Nicholas,” Taylor continued in whispers. “I will need your services for much of the night.”

“You got it, boss,” Oliverio replied eagerly. “Anything you say.”

Taylor gave him an address a few blocks away, and told him to be there in fifteen minutes.

“I’ll be there,” Oliverio answered, almost shouting. Taylor hung up the phone, turned out the light, and left the room.

Nick Oliverio arrived on time, even considering that he’d driven from the far side of town and had been in bed when Taylor had called. Nick felt he owed his life to the Black Hand, and would do anything for him. Some aided the Black Hand out of fear, or of hope for reward. Nick assisted him out of gratitude. Months before, the cab driver had narrowly escaped death when the Black Hand had prevented a gun-crazed fiend from firing point blank in Nick’s face. Ever since, whenever the Black Hand needed him, Nick was at the ready.

Nick pulled up to the curb, and from out of the shadows stepped the Black Hand. Without a word, he slipped into the backseat of the cab, closing the door silently behind him.

“Where to, boss?” Nick asked, not turning around.

“Pier 31,” came the whispered answer.

“You got it.”

In silence, the cabbie drove his dark passenger through the night, stopping at last a short distance away from the indicated spot. Nick knew the Black Hand used subtlety and surprise as weapons, and didn’t want to interfere.

“Wait here,” the low voice ordered. “I shall return with two other passengers, and possibly some cargo.”

Nick shivered despite himself. He had a good idea what kind of cargo the Black Hand meant, and it would be destined only for a morgue. Still, he was happy to help.

The Black Hand slipped away from the cab, sidling up to the dark warehouse, number 2740. Going around the side, he came to a door secured with a rusted padlock. Slipping a slender tool from a pocket, he inserted it into the keyhole, and with a twist jarred the lock open. Then he gently pulled the door open and stole inside.

The interior of the warehouse was cavernous and empty, the ceiling high overhead. Broken wooden pallets and empty boxes littered the concrete floor, and overhead swung a heavy iron hook on a rope and pulley. The only light came from a dim bulb set in the far corner wall, and beneath that light lay slumped a crumpled form. Twin .45s at the ready, the Black Hand made his way across the floor, and crept up towards the figure lying there in the dim pool of light. It was the bound form of Louise Aldridge.

“Miss Aldridge,” the Black Hand whispered, his voice betraying his concern for his trusted aide. “Louise.” He knelt beside her, placing a hand on her round shoulder. “Where is Matthews?”

Roused from a fitful sleep, Louise slowly opened her eyes. Her shock at seeing her rescuer was registered there in those crystal blue orbs.

“Richmond,” she breathed.

“Where is Matthews?” he repeated. “I must get you both out of here.”

“Who?” Louise asked.

“The other prisoner,” he answered as he went to work on her binds. He wanted her away from there as quickly as possible, but could not leave the other victim to whatever fate awaited him. So intent was he on freeing her, that he noticed too late the look of horror in her eyes, and saw the shadow falling across his own hands. A blow like a jackhammer pounded into his head, and he fell into darkness!


When he regained consciousness, Taylor found himself unmasked, bound hands to feet, and laying on the floor next to Louise. She stared at him, wide eyed, unable to help.

He struggled into a sitting position, and surveyed his surroundings. Whoever had struck him had been waiting in the darkness when he arrived, and come up behind him unnoticed.

“Richmond,” Louise whispered. “Are you alright?”

“I have been better, Miss Aldridge,” Taylor answered in a low voice. “I take it you are the only prisoner here.”

“I was until you arrived,” she answered. “Now there are the both of us.”

“How long was I out?”

“Just a few moments,” Louise replied. “Just long enough for that man to get you tied up.”

“Did you get a look at him?”

“No, he always keeps his face hidden under a mask, not unlike someone else I know.” She paused. “But I suppose he’s alone in that club now.” She gestured with her chin, pointing at the hat and mask that lay tossed a few feet away.

“No time to worry about that now,” Taylor answered, his voice grave. “Where has he gone?”

“I’m right here, Mr. Taylor,” came a voice from out of the shadows. Then followed a mocking laugh, and a hooded figure stepped into the light, a pistol trained on the pair.

“He calls himself the Talon,” Louise said, eyeing him icily.

“I would have thought he’d come up with a better name than that,” Taylor replied. He turned his gaze on the hooded man. “Wouldn’t you, Peter?”

The hooded man laughed again, and then drew himself up straight. Keeping his pistol pointed at the two of them, he reached up with the other and pulled the hood from his face. There, unmasked, stood Peter Matthews!

“I should have suspected,” Taylor said evenly. “It was all there in front of me.”

“I’m sure,” Matthews hissed. “But it’s rather too late now, Mr. Taylor. Or should I say, Black Hand.” He laughed, mirthlessly. “It’s a pity to have discovered your secret so soon before your death. It kind of takes the fun out of it.”

“What are you going to do?” Louise asked at a silent signal from Taylor.

“I’m going to kill you, of course.”

“But why?” she went on, stealing a glance at her silent companion.

“Why not ask your boyfriend?” Matthews taunted. “I think he’s got it all figured out.”

“You tell her,” Taylor snarled. “I wouldn’t want to spoil your fun.” Taylor needed just a few moments more, and he knew that once bragging, Matthews would give them to him.

“Very well,” Matthews sighed. “My father disowned me last year, Mrs. Black Hand, on account of my somewhat unsavory associates. A boy has to have a hobby, you know. In any case, I find myself in need of cash, and the old man simply won’t give it to me, no matter how often I ask. He hates me, you see. A huge disappointment. That’s the rub, really.

“But he doesn’t want me dead. So say I were kidnapped, and his only choice was to pay up or get my severed head in the mail. That would spoil his brunch, don’t you think?” Matthews walked to the wall about ten feet away, threw a switch, and from overhead came the sound of rusty gears groaning to life.

“So you staged your own kidnapping,” Louise said. “But why me, and all the others? What do they have to do with it?”

“Well, I wanted daddy dearest to see I, that is the Talon, was serious, so I tried a few dry runs first. Pick up an heiress’ daughter from school, milk a few bucks from the old cow, and puncture the little darling if mommy doesn’t pay. Then the police are sure to tell daddy that the kidnapping is for real.” He paused. “My father just doesn’t trust me you see. Anyway, by kidnapping little beauties like you, I get the money too. Like a bonus. And I just pay some drunk fifty bucks to stand around in this smelly mask for the pickups, and I never run the risk of getting caught.” He smiled grimly. “Pretty snappy, huh? But enough of my jawing.” He swung the pistol around, and pointed it at one and then the other of them.

“Which one of you wants to go first?” He took a step to the side, and gestured behind them. There, four feet from the concrete floor, hung the iron hook. The gears above had lowered it into place, and now it stood ready.

He stepped forward, the gun trained on Taylor, until he was only a few feet away.

“You, I think, Mr. Hand,” Matthews finally said.

“I think not,” Taylor replied and, splitting his bonds, drove his feet into Matthews’ knees. Matthews tottered, shooting blind, and staggered back moaning. The bullet rushed past Taylor’s ear, striking the wall behind him and sending splinters of wood flying into the back of his neck. Taylor pulled the now severed binds from his ankles and sprang to his feet. In his hand he held the slim blade he’d managed to pull from the hollow heel of his shoe, and with which he cut the rope wrapped round and round his arms and legs.

Matthews stood stock still, gaping, not sure what had happened, and as he brought the pistol once more level with Taylor’s chest the man of mystery rushed towards him. Disoriented, Matthews shot wildly, but if any hit Taylor he didn’t slow down. An unstoppable engine, he plowed into Matthews, driving him back.

Matthews, crazed, struck at his attacker with the pistol, and then flung it away. Taylor was inhuman, unstoppable, and bullets couldn’t hurt him. Taylor slowed his advance. Matthews staggered back, and then turn to flee. He took only two steps into the shadows and was brought up short, screaming.

Taylor, blood dripping from the bullet wound in his shoulder, stepped forward slowly, but it was too late. Matthews, in the darkness, had run directly into the iron hook, and with the force of his movement had impaled himself there. Now he hung, lifeless, listing slowly this way and that. The Talon had met his death on his own claw!


After recovering his hat and mask, and freeing Louise, Taylor had returned to Nick’s waiting cab. From there, he was driven to Louise’s building. Nick helped the masked Taylor up the stairs to Louise’s apartment, and then stayed to help her dress the Black Hand’s wounds. When they were done, still masked, Taylor thanked Nick for his loyal service and asked him to depart.

“Sure, boss,” the cabbie answered. “I’ll let myself out. And call any time.”

Once he had left, Taylor drew the mask from his face and called for Louise to bring him the phone. Dialing, he flexed his shoulder, testing the dressing.

“Good work, Miss Aldridge,” he complimented. “I am always grateful I was able to lure you away from the medical profession.”

“Anytime, Mr. Taylor,” she answered, smiling. “And if you think being a nurse is more exciting than this, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“Yes,” he replied, nodding. “I suppose you’re right.”

The line continued ringing, until at last came the sleeping voice at the other end of the line.


“Joseph,” Taylor said, “I apologize for disturbing your rest, but I have information regarding the Talon. Direct your colleagues to the empty warehouse at Pier 31, and there you will find the Talon. I believe you will discover that the warehouse is the possession of Matthews Industries, and that, with the knowledge that the man you will find was the face behind the Talon’s hood, should be all you will need to know.”

“Yes sir,” Martenson answered. “Right away, sir.”

Taylor dropped the handset back into its cradle, and then eased back onto the couch.

“Miss Aldridge,” he finally spoke, his eyes half lidded. “I am afraid I will have to ask another favor of you.”

“What?” Louise shot back, feigning indignation. “What could you possibly need now?”

“The use of your couch until morning,” Taylor replied. “I’m afraid I’m not going anywhere.”

Louise smiled, and drew a quilt over him.

“You got it, Mr. Taylor,” she answered, “but I need something from you, too.”

“And what is that?” Taylor asked, almost succumbing to sleep.

“You still owe me a dinner on the town,” she replied, “and I mean to collect.”

Taylor laughed, smiling, and then closed his eyes. Tonight, at least, justice would sleep.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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