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Free Excerpt 4/5: Book of Secrets by Chris Roberson

Here’s Part 4 (of 5) of a free excerpt from Chris Roberson’s latest book, Book of Secrets, available from Angry Robot Books. (See also: Parts 1, 2, and 3.) 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


“The Talon’s Curse”

by Walter Reece

(originally appeared in the September, 1939 issue of The Black Hand Mysteries)


The blood curdling scream tearing across the night air told Richmond Taylor one of two things: someone had just been killed, or someone was about to be. He didn’t care for either option.

Coming up the stairs to the Carousel Club, the rooftop restaurant that had become the toast of the San Francisco social scene, Taylor tore through the crowds towards the source of the scream. Louise Aldridge, his Gal Friday and companion for the night, still hung on his arm, rushing alongside him with bated breath. Louise knew well Taylor’s course in the face of danger.

The last of the crowd parted seeing Taylor approach. The wealthy financier was well known in upper crust social circles, and generally thought something of a fop, but his steely gaze and his whipcord muscles flexing like steel bands beneath the dark fabric of his suit would brook no delay.

There, on the tiled floor, lay the battered body of a young girl. She lay face up, an expression of terror frozen on her cold face, black blood encrusted round her lips. Where her heart should have been, where the beat of her young life once sounded like a small bird’s wings, there was only a gaping chasm, a gory tunnel to the floor below. Taylor straightened himself, fixing his gaze on the inert body on the floor. Rush as he might, he would have arrived too late to save this girl. She had been dead for hours.

Next came the sound of shouts, and a gruff voice raising above the rest, calling for order. Taylor knew the voice well. It belonged to Detective Chalmers, pride of the San Francisco Police Department.

“Get outta my way, you blood-thirsty rubber-neckers,” he called again, shoving his way through the crowd. “Lemme do my job.”

At a sign from Taylor, Louise slid her arm from under his and blended back into the crowd. She understood her duty at such a time. To canvas the onlookers nonchalantly, discovering what she could. Her report would aid Taylor in ferreting out the truth, and she cherished her responsibility. Of all Taylor’s agents, only she knew the secret of his other life.

With Louise gone, Taylor made his way across the crowd to a man he’d noted on his entrance. They had been climbing the stairs together, and when the waitress who had discovered the body had screamed, this man had been the only one not to hurry to the scene to investigate. Taylor had recognized him as Peter Matthews, black sheep son of a wealthy shipping magnate.

Sidling up to Matthews, Taylor watched as Detective Chalmers surveyed the scene, and began questioning the witnesses. Taylor, feigning horror and a weak stomach, addressed Matthews.

“Terrible business,” he began, only a trace of the Texas twang he had inherited along with a fortune from his father sounding in his level voice. “What could possess someone to do such a thing?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Matthews answered evenly, his gaze darting to Taylor. “I’ve only just arrived.”

“Not the sort of thing you expect to see at such a place,” Taylor commented, eyeing the other man.

“Oh?” Matthews answered coolly. “And where would you expect to see such a thing?” Abruptly he turned on his heel, and stalked away. Taylor watched him as he went, deep in thought.

When the police had finished their interviews, and the body had been carried out under a sheet, Taylor and Louise met on the stairs. Taylor produced a pair of cigarettes, and lit one for each of them with a silver-plated lighter, engraved with the emblem of an outstretched hand.

“Well, Miss Aldridge,” he finally spoke, loud enough for passersby to hear, the smoke curling about his head, “I see little reason to remain. I’ll walk you home.”

They descended the stairs and went out into the dark street. Walking down the sidewalk, arm in arm, they looked the picture of the loving couple. But it was not endearments they whispered to one another. They spoke of crime.

“Miss Aldridge,” Taylor said, his voice low, “your report.”

Louise began simply, stating what she had learned from memory.

“The hallway had been empty when the waitress last passed through it. It leads from the main dining room to a storage area. The storage area is visited throughout the night, waitresses and busboys going back and forth to get glasses, linens, and such. But sometimes half an hour can pass without anyone going that way. The waitress had been the last one to walk it, twenty minutes before, but when she went back, she found…” Despite herself, Louise found her voice breaking. She paused, trembling.

“She found the body,” Taylor said, completing the thought.

“Yes,” Louise answered.

“And beside the main entrance, is there any other access to that hallway?”

“Near the storeroom there’s is a freight elevator,” she replied. “It stops on each floor, but is unmanned at this hour. It opens on the loading dock at the ground level.”

“Likewise unmanned,” Taylor commented.


Taylor quickened his pace, and Louise hurried to keep up.

“Then,” Taylor concluded, “anyone might quite easily have taken the body up the elevator, left by the same route, and escaped detection.”

“But why?” Louise asked. “Why leave the body there?”

“That, Miss Aldridge, we will not know until the body is identified. Only then can we begin to answer such questions.”

Arriving at Louise’s walkup in the North Beach, Taylor bid her a good night, saying he would see her next morning at the office. Out of habit, Taylor waited in the street below until he saw the light in Louise’s window go on. She was his most trusted aide, and he was always very protective.

As he was about to turn, and move on, he caught sight of a dark figure, prowling about the side of Louise’s building. He thought it a vagrant, seeking a warm place to sleep, until the figure stepped into the light, and he saw his features were disguised with a hood. Then the moonlight glinted off the steel of the pistol in the figure’s hand, and Taylor knew it was no vagrant.

Taylor, keeping his eyes fixed on the mysterious figure, stepped into the shadows of a doorway. Pulling on black leather gloves, and the rolling down a close-fitting mask of black fabric from inside the brim of his fedora, he stepped back into the light. No longer Richmond Taylor, wealthy financier and gadabout, he now stood tall as that dark mystery of the night, that scourge of terror and nemesis to all evildoers: The Black Hand!


Stealthily slipping across the cold concrete, The Black Hand crept up behind the dark figure. As the figure mounted a trellis on the side of the building, intending to climb, The Black Hand rushed him. His own swift hand swept through the night air, knocking the pistol from the figure’s grasp before he knew the attack was on him. The hooded man fell to the ground, cursing, and rolled away out of the Black Hand’s reach.

“Who are you,” the Black Hand hissed though the fabric of his mask. “What evil do you work here?”

The hooded man rose to his feet, unsteady, and before the Black Hand could move flung himself at him. The pair fell to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs, each striking out at the other. The hooded man got to his feet an instant before the Black Hand, and raced off into the night. The Black Hand flew after him, his feet sounding like gunshot against the pavement.

Across North Beach they raced, over Telegraph Hill and down to the docks, the hooded man always just out of the Black Hand’s reach. Behind his mask, Taylor cursed himself for going out into the night without his twin .45s. It was a mistake he vowed never to make again.

Their pursuit had gone unnoticed, through deserted and empty streets, but at the Embarcadero the hooded man raced in front of a truck bearing its cargo through the night. He made it past the truck only by inches, and the Black Hand found his path blocked until the mammoth vehicle had passed. By the time he himself had crossed the thoroughfare, the hooded man was nowhere in sight. He had vanished into the night air like mist, blending into the foggy sky.

On the other side, the Black Hand found only the empty piers, and the silent warehouses that lined them up and down. The hooded man must have gained entrance to one, and there hid in darkness. The Black Hand spent the better part of an hour, searching the perimeter first of one warehouse, then the next, but could find no sign of forced entry. Finally, he gave up the chase, and returning his mask to its place, hidden under the crown of his hat, he made his way back over the hill, now simple Richmond Taylor again.

He came at last to Louise’s door. Her light still burned overhead, and Taylor wanted to warn her against danger. Some unknown stalker had sought to do her harm, and might do again. Letting himself in the main door with his skeleton key, he climbed the stairs to her door. He knocked, and knocked again, and no answer. Finally, fearing the worse, he tried the door, only to find it unlocked. Pushing it open, he cautiously entered the apartment.

The furniture lay in disarray, strewn about the floor, and broken dishes and lamps were spread all over. Louise was nowhere to be found. Pinned to the inside of the door, with a steel hook, was a notice, hastily scrawled in red ink.

“Louise Aldridge is with me. If Mr. Taylor wants her return, it will cost him. I will contact with details.”

Taylor ripped the note from the door and read it over. It was signed, “THE TALON.” He crumpled the note in his gloved hand. Louise Aldridge was in grave danger, and there was work for the Black Hand to do!


Taylor hurried through the foyer of police headquarters, speeding to his appointment with Detective Chalmers. Though as the Black Hand he was wanted dead by criminals and imprisoned by the police, as Richmond Taylor he was a valuable member of the community, and the authorities were happy to rush to his aid.

On his way through the squad room, Taylor narrowly avoided colliding with Officer Joe Martenson. Martenson, a simple beat cop with an honest heart and a hatred of crime, was one of the Black Hand’s trusted subordinates. But unlike Louise Aldridge, he knew nothing of the identity of the man he aided, and had never met Richmond Taylor. Taylor almost forgot himself and addressed Martenson by name. Instead, he excused himself and hurried by.

The night before he’d called Martenson from Louise’s apartment, telling him only that the Black Hand had a use for him. He’d given Martenson Louise’s address, and told him to hurry. Then Taylor had returned to his home on Nob Hill, and awaited the police’s call. When the call came, he feigned shock. Someone kidnap his trusted assistant? The horror.

Now, the next morning, Taylor was to meet with the officer in charge of the investigation, and would learn the particulars of the case. He was eager to learn all he could. Little did the police realize that by talking to Taylor, they were aiding the mysterious Black Hand!

When all had gathered in Chalmers’ office, Taylor surveyed their faces. Besides himself and the Detective, there was Police Lieutenant Jones, the Chief of Police James Carroway, and millionaire industrialist Reginald Dupree. Taylor eyed this last longest.

Dupree was dressed in an expensively tailored gray suit, with a silver pin on his lapel, showing a four-armed spiral enclosed in a circular band. Though distressed, the man had an undeniable look of self-satisfaction about him, as though he considered the others in the room beneath him. Since the beginning of the Depression ten years before, few fortunes had escaped entirely unscathed, and those that had were usually comprised of some dirty money. There were rumors about Dupree’s practices, rumors of ill-advised associations.

“Gentleman,” Chief Carroway began, “let me first say how sorry we are that we have to meet under these circumstances.”

“I don’t have time for your glad-handing!” Dupree shouted. “What about my wife?”

“Well then,” the Chief answered, flustered. He turned to Chalmers. “Detective?”

“Sure, sure.” Chalmers muttered, lighting a cigar. He rose out of his seat, and crossed the floor to stand before Taylor and Dupree. “It’s like this, boys. You’ve had people kidnapped, and we’re gonna do everything we can to see that you get ’em back in one piece.”

“And without any pieces missing,” Jones added under his breath.

“That’s enough outta you,” Chalmers shot back, glaring. “Show some tact, why don’t ya. Now then, this creep what’s got your people calls himself the Talon, like you already know. And he means business.”

“Detective,” Taylor began in a calm voice, “does this possibly have anything to do with the body found last night at the Carousel Club?”

“Yeah, right,” Chalmers answered slowly, eyeing him. “I saw you there, didn’t I? Well, yessir, it does. See, this Talon has a habit of taking two victims at once. For leverage, ya see. One pays, they get their people back. The other doesn’t… they don’t.”

Dupree rose up out of his seat.

“You mean this has happened before?” he shouted. “You could have stopped my wife being kidnapped yesterday? Of all the incompetent…”

“Now, Mr. Dupree, we’ve done everything we can so far,” the Chief answered. “And we’re close to making an arrest.” He turned to Chalmers, his voice grave. “Isn’t that right, Detective?”

“Sure, sure. Now, Mr. Dupree, your wife was the fourth person kidnapped. The first was ’bout two weeks ago. We’ve managed to keep it outta the papers so far. That girl found last night, the kidnapper killed because her family wouldn’t pay. They were workin’ with us to get him, and we almost did, but it got fouled up. Then he was down to one bird, so he picked up your assistant, Mr. Taylor.” Chalmers paused, puffing on his cigar. “Looks like the guy’s just going down the social register, hitting one millionaire after another.

“Now, so far two families have paid the kidnapper’s money, and got their people back. They show up healthy enough, but they can’t say who the creep was. He wore a mask the whole time, they say, like a hood, so’s they can’t identify him.”

Taylor tensed, grasping the arm of his chair.

“I don’t see how any of this is going to get my wife back,” Dupree growled.

“Yes,” Taylor added. “You must have a plan.”

“That we do, gents,” Chalmers added. “Mr. Dupree, this creep’s gonna be calling you to make arrangements for his payoff. What you do is agree to pay him, let him pick a spot for the meeting, and then let us know. We show up, get him, and you get your wife and the money.”

“And what about my assistant?” Taylor asked.

“Well, once we got this Talon character we find out where he’s got her.”

“What are we waiting for,” Dupree answered, rising up. “I’m game. Anything to get back my Meribelle.”

Taylor stayed stiff in his chair. He didn’t trust the police to accomplish everything they’d planned. They might need help, and the Black Hand was the one to provide it!

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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