Book Excerpt – Topaz
Copyright © 2007 HarperCollins/Beverly Jenkins No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher or author. The format of this excerpt has been modified for presentation here.
Under the cover of the darkness, Katherine Love stood with her back pressed closely against the outside wall of the warehouse, hoping she couldn’t be seen. The night watchman was on the far side of the yard, and she was waiting for him to pass. She could see him walking and swinging his lantern in and out of the shadows. He was whistling cheerily as he checked a few doors to make certain they hadn’t been tampered with, but he gave no more than a cursory look to most of the sheds and buildings along the route.
This was the third night Katherine had come here hoping to rendezvous with a man hired to assist her in her plan, but for reasons unknown, he’d never shown. She hoped this third night would be the charm.
As the watchman came closer to her, she hunkered down behind a large trash bin filled with lumber and discarded crates. Her five-feet seven-inch frame made it difficult for her to appear small, but the black axle grease she’d smeared over her brown skin, coupled with her black shirt and men’s trousers, made it easier for her to blend into the shadows, as did the black knitted fisherman’s cap hiding her short curls.
The watchman approached, then passed by her so closely, that she could have reached out, grabbed his pant leg, and probably frightened him half to death. But she wasn’t her to pull silly pranks.
He moved on. She waited for the sounds of his whistling and footsteps to fade into the distance before releasing her pent-up breath; she’d hurdled the first obstacle. Once her contact appeared, they would have a little under an hour to complete the night’s work before the watchman returned to this portion of the warehouse yard. Plenty of time—if the contact showed.
Silence resettled, and a cautious Katherine waited without moving. The distance bark of a dog floated in on the May night air. She stood silently and watched. Minutes passed; then, from out of the darkness, cam the faint flickering light of a match. It disappeared so quickly that she thought she might have imagined it. She peered closely, tensely waiting to see if it would appear again. When it did, she offered up a silent hallelujah. The light was the agreed upon signal. Katherine peeled her tall body away from the shadows of her hiding place. Keeping herself low, she quickly crossed the open yard and headed for the person who’d struck the match.
She didn’t know his name; she had no reason to. They would probably never meet again once that night’s job ended, yet he greeted her with a smile from behind the burnt cork covering his light brown face. “You’re the Globe reporter?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“They didn’t tell me you were a woman.”
She dearly hoped her gender would not be a problem because she did not have the time to educate a man on the fine points of what a woman of the nineteenth century could achieve. “Does my gender matter?” she asked.
He took a moment to scan her clothing and face, then shrugged, “Not to me.”
Katherine was glad. “Are you ready?”
e nodded yes.
“Then let’s go rob us a safe.”
atherine and her accomplice rapidly covered the short distance to the main building. The safe she’d alluded to belonged to Mr. Rupert Samuels, a wealthy Chicago businessman and a pillar of the city’s Black community. He had many storehouses on this large plot of land on the far edge of the city, but only one held his business office.
When they reached the door, her companion whispered, “They said you had a way in?”
t was her turn to nod yes as she reached into her trouser pocket and withdrew a small thin box. Inside were a set of lock picks given to her for her twenty-fifth birthday by a wily old gentleman burglar she’d met during her stint as a newspaperwoman back in Virginia. Katherine inserted one of the gap-toothed picks into the door’s padlock, and it opened. She sensed the surprise emanating from the man at her side, but she didn’t pause to acknowledge it. Men were surprised by her unconventional ways all the time.
They tiptoed inside cautiously. Katherine was fairly certain no one would be about, but she knew better than to take that for granted. The solid silence made her breathing sound like a train engine, and her heart beat as loud as a drum. She reached back and softly closed the door. “The safe’s hidden behind that Bannister painting on the far wall,” she told her accomplice quietly.
The man replied, “I’ll need a bit of light.”
She heard the scratch of a match and then saw the lit wick of a candle stub. He cupped his hand around the dancing finger of flame to prevent the light from casting too well. He looked around, spied the copy of the prize-winning Bannister painting Under the Oaks, and told Katherine, “Keep watch.”
Katherine slid back into the darkness, by the door. She was glad for his help because she couldn’t’ve gotten into the safe alone. Thanks to her old burglar friend, she could easily spring the locks on doors of some strongboxes, but her abilities did not extend to wall safes. It had taken her editor, Geoff Pratt, weeks to find a man who could be trusted to discretely carry out this endeavor. The long search had cut so deeply into the time frame she and Geoff had allotted for this investigation that if tonight’s burglary proved unsuccessful, her six long months of hard work would go for naught.
Her companion called out softly, “It’s open and we’ve struck gold.”
The announcement filled Katherine with excitement, but she kept her wits about her. She opened the door a crack to make certain no one was approaching from outside before going over to see what the safe held.
The candle provided just enough light to illuminate the area around Samuel’s large oak desk. The inside of the safe was filled with shadows, but they weren’t thick enough to hid the three printers plates stacked against the back wall. With a satisfied smile, Katherine reached inside and lifted them out. Rupert Samuels had printed hundreds, maybe thousands, of counterfeit railroad stock certificates using the plates Katherine now passed over to her companion. At first glance, the Samuels scheme appeared to be very beneficial: How better to circumvent the jim crow laws than to have a rail line that would cater only to members of the race? The hoodwinked investors, mostly pensioners and widows, had willingly let themselves be led to the slaughter by the well-dressed and seemingly sincere young men selling the stocks. After the bank drafts of the victims cleared, the salesmen vanished, and the investors were left holding worthless pieces of paper.
Katherine reached back inside the safe and pulled out a stack of fraudulent stock certificates and a large ledger. She held the ledger toward the light and hastily scanned the entries. There were pages and pages of names, each one adjacent to addresses and dollar amounts. She came across the name of Sally Dotson, an old friend of her Aunt Ceil’s and Katherine’s landlady. Sally and many of the members of her church had been fleeced by the stock sharps. When Sally told Katherine what had happened, Katherine wrote her editor, Geoff Pratt, in New York hoping he had an idea as to how they could recoup their savings. Geoff could off no immediate solution but wired back that he had been approached by a man in New York claiming to be a disgruntled ex-employee of a similar scan being run there. The man was angry because he hadn’t been paid what he’d been promised and wanted to expose the leader of the ring, Rupert Samuels of Chicago. Katherine and Geoff set this plan in motion to get at the truth. Katherine assumed the other names chronicled in the ledgers were also victims. With this ledger in hand, the authorities could indict Samuels and his cronies for fraud as soon as luncheon tomorrow. she wondered if he would enjoy languishing n a prison cell? Knowing Rupert Samuels the way she did, she was quite certain he would not.
Katherine gave the ledger and the phony stocks to her accomplice, who slipped them into a canvas bag along with the plates. He would be taking the evidence to her editor, Geoff, in New York. Geoff in turn would hand them over to the federal authorities. Katherine’s job then would be to disappear. When the authorities swooped down on Rupert, she planned to be on a train to Boston for a much needed holiday. Left behind would be the woman she’d posed as for the past six months: Katherine Lane, a meek seamstress’ assistant. Also left behind would be Katherine Lane, Rupert Samuels’s fianc’e. She and Rupert were slated to be wed tomorrow in what the society papers were calling the “wedding of the year.”……